Tragic View on Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady

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      Henry James had a cousin named Minny Temple who died prematurely at the age of 24 due to pulmonary consumption in 1870. It is well known that Isabel Archer has been depicted on the model of that cousin by our author.

      Journey towards knowledge. The heroine sets out upon her European sojourn in order to know life better. Ralph is described as telling her that Isabel wants to see life but not feel the brunt of it herself. She has a ridiculously active imagination and hence does not find solitude inordinately unbearable. Isabel’s capacity for happiness has been brought to light and explained in detail by the author in the earlier chapters. Her vibrant interest in seeking more and more of knowledge of people and things, her love to drive a phaeton or row a boat are all explained to us by Henry James and we can assess her character on that basis. Her pertinent questions regarding social life in England and the Continent charmed rather than amused such men of different caliber as Daniel Touchett, Lord Warburton, Ralph, etc. She exhibits her will to get the maximum pleasure out of her stay at Gardencourt. In her view, life is and should necessarily be an inexhaustible perennial source of knowledge and happiness. Her enjoyment of life stands in the danger of being hampered by wedlock and the consequent lack of freedom, in her opinion, and this attitude was responsible for her rejection of the proposals of both Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood. According to her initial intensity of imagination life appeared to her an everlasting fountain of unalloyed bliss but unfortunately, like all lovers all over the world, she becomes the victim of an adverse fate in as much as that she had to renounce the world albeit her love for it was beyond description. It is perhaps an ironic trust on the part of Henry James, that is based on the passage in the Bible that avers ‘He who loses his life shall find it’.

      Innocence faces experience: Isabel’s marriage with Osmond. Earlier in her career she of course gets involved in a marriage with Gilbert Osmond before her ‘beastly pure mind’ could know of the amorous adventures of Osmond and Madame Merle. This hasty choice on her part actually condemned her and her marriage with sterility and unhappiness and projected the clash of wills between Osmond and herself This was due to her eagerness to ‘search for the inner life’, as Henrietta phrases it, and her idealism. As an American girl she had been very innocent but in the vortex of European social stream she gets lost for a brief period. Isabel did not want to lose her sense of being and identity completely which amounts to spiritual brow-beating. If only Madame Merle had warned Isabel earlier she would not have committed herself by marrying Osmond at the first instance. But inevitably she had to marry him and get frustrated later.

      Traits of Isabel Archer: how they contribute to the ‘tragic’ developments. As a young girl she was vivacious and a voracious reader of German metaphysical tracts and treatises as well as English poetical works and some fiction. She had been somewhat proud and critical but her pride and critical analysis did not completely efface her honesty, nobility and moral consistency. Another admirable trait in Isabel’s character was her willingness to pay the penalty for her own false step in having chosen earlier Osmond as her life partner. This penalty was her return to Rome. We may perhaps find traces of egotism in Isabel which overwhelms Osmond completely but the predominance is for the quality of generosity which Ralph Touchett too possesses admirably. The quality of intellectual honesty which Lord Warburton had in plenty favors Isabel too to a great extent. We cannot but feel sympathetic towards her in her final decision against selfish fulfillment for a generous renunciation by way of voluntary retirement in Rome. These are many complex factors in the mental setup of Isabel as evidenced by her tear for the sexual side of marriage at the time when proposals from suitors like Caspar Goodwood, Lord Warburton, etc. had to be tackled by her. Her vehement reaction to a kiss of Goodwood might have been due to her sexual frigidity as some critics allude. Other critics attribute this to her sexual inhibition despite the fact that she had undertaken a psychic journey in search of a ‘partner’ capable of offering her a permanent ‘home’. It may perhaps be explained by the fact that being a staunch individualist she could not tolerate any, not even the slightest, aggression against it. In fact there is a clash between two types of egotism, that of Isabel and that of Osmond. Isabel did not want a submission on her part in marrying (or rather remarrying) Osmond for she was incapable of any serious change of attitude. This unbending nature of her will might have annoyed Osmond in the same way as the impetuosity of Osmond had annoyed her.

      In her return to Rome she actually vindicates her in oral consistency springing from her moral seriousness. Isabel considers marriage as a holy sacramental and there is an inward assent from her for the act of renunciation for the upkeep of the sacred and precious character of the bond of marriage.

      Some critics are of the opinion that she had been punished by destiny for her pride and presumptuous characteristics. This cannot be admitted in toto. Her pride becomes softened later on due to her earnestness to please others. In the beginning of our assay we stated that Isabel has been modelled on Minny Temple who meets with a premature death. Hence in the story too the heroine meets with a symbolic death in the form of segregation m Rome.

      On the whole the life of Isabel is semi-tragic with some amount of comedy in it. Her eagerness for reflection and introspection for understanding herself 13 the central theme of the novel. In the first part of the novel the reader is baffled by the question that arises within himself as in the case of Ralph what will she do? and in the latter part by the question ‘what has she done with herself?’ as in the case of Miss Stackpole.

University Questions

.....a woman apparently made for nothing bat happiness condemns herself to a life which cannot be happy because she has been made aware of ‘what people must know and suffer’. Write on the implications of this remark on the character of Isabel Archer.
Write a brief critical note on Henry James’s art of Characterization with special reference to Isabel Archer.
Do you consider Isabel Archer as a ‘tragic’ character ? Give reasons for your answer.

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