Two Kinds of Egotism in The Portrait of a Lady

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      The theme of egotism and power form the real substance of the novel. In this novel James had depicted 2 kinds of egotism in Isabel and Gilbert Osmond. It was the inseparable egotism which made each saw in the other a mirror-image of ‘self’. They had an undefined need of each other but in the end they could not endure each other. It is the magnetic quality of power and egotism that attracts power and egotism but cannot endure it for long.

      In spite of the language of Emersonian transcendentalism with which James’s Americans consider their goals, they are clearly motivated by an unhealthy egotism. Some readers condemn Osmond but exempt Isabel. It is not right since Isabel too is pretentious, insincere and hypocritical at times. If Osmond represents the corrupted world, Isabel represents the gullible world and both are not far from each other. As none of them is exempted from pose or mask, they share identities. Isabel, the author tells us, “considered that a morality differing from her own must be inferior to it.” As far as her view holds she is a thorough going American. In her self-absorption she overlooks the reciprocities of life. Loving her own freedom, she forgets that liberty is often won at the expense of freedom of others. Isabel in her sense of her own absoluteness nourishes a delusion that one can play god or goddess - if one has enough wealth and few generous opportunities. Osmond satisfies the requirements of her imagination and she marries him. When she marries him she believes that she would launch his boat for him, that she should be his Providence. In her midnight vigil, she realizes that under all his culture, his cleverness, his amenity, facility, his knowledge of life, his egotism lay hidden like a serpent in a bank of lowers Now her passion for free exploration of life has cooled down and it is no more than a dark, narrow alley with a dead wall at the end. Osmond has, indeed turned out to be a mute, morally coarse person, egotistical and capable of subjecting to emotional and mental cannibalism.

      Critics have tried to argue that Osmond’s selfishness and demonic imagination are nothing else but James’s own buried life, some part of which he concealed even from himself but which effortlessly emerged from the depths in the writing of this character. Am element of egotism is also there, besides Isabel, in Ralph and Madame Merle but Osmond’s is the starkest and sinister one. Gilbert Osmond at one moment identifies himself with Machiavelli, Vittoria Colonna and Letastasio. One of his ambitions is to be the emperor of Russia or perhaps the Pope. But since it is not possible for him to wield world-shaking power he becomes a petty tyrant. He had acquired Isabel as a promised ‘gift’ from Madame Merle and wanted to ‘sacrifice’ all her ideas without any qualm of the conscience. He desired, to attach her mind to his like a small garden plot to a deer park. He would shake the soil gently and water the flowers, he would weed the beds and gather an occasional nose-gay. What he demands is Isabel’s complete subservience to his effete vision of life, to his stultifying tastes and Isabel can’t do it. His cultivated aestheticism is all sham and delusion and in his relations with his wife, it expresses itself as a simple desire to dominate her.

      Isabel’s egotism is limited, damaging to the self and has no touch of malignity but Osmond’s is unlimited, cruel and destructive. Isabel too is cold and selfish like Osmond. The only thing which disturbed her beyond measure was that Osmond had married her for her money. One thing about Isabel-Osmond relationship is that both are joined in perilous proximity by the bond of their marriage and both are related to other social realities which are part, of their American background.

      Isabel rejected Goodwood because he treated her as an object but her ‘fate’ made her a mere objected art. She is a transcendental evocation of the series of young American girls who are the products of wealth and victims of Europe. Though in his essay on Emerson, James praises ‘Emersonian vision of what we require and what we are capable of in way of aspiration and independence, he had a patronizing conception of the narrowness of Emerson’s intelligence especially its lack of social sophistication’.

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