Henry James, Redux


More properly titled

Some Notes toward Coming to Terms with The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady is a difficult book to characterize; there is little in the way of plot or setting, and much about the interior lives of the characters, even if much of that is viewed from the exterior. Isabel Archer clearly occupies center stage and she presents her own difficulties to the reader. Frankly, it is difficult to like her and even more difficult to sympathize with her plight. The whole arc of the book can be described by the adage, "She has made her bed, now she must lie upon."

Why is Isabel Archer so difficult to like? The answer to this question probably boils down to the definition for a "tragic hero(ine)." A noble, otherwise likeable person, with one major fault. If fault there be in Ms. Archer it is an overweening pride. The bible instructs that "Pride goeth before a fall," (and after, as well, as anyone who has taken a tumble in public can testify). And fall she does, from a great and dizzying height.

And yet one is left with the impression than much of the angst and anguish of that fall is unnecessary--dictated only by the odd and hard pride that drives Ms. Archer. In fact, contemplating what has happened to her in the course of her marriage, she considers for a moment ending the pain by walking away, only to conclude that she cannot do so because then her error will be brought to public notice.

So where are we left with Ms. Archer? It's odd, her pride leads in two directions. In the beginning of the book, she is unwilling to be "tied down," to consider marriage because it would be a compromise of all the possibilities that seem to open up before her. She flouts conventionality and the "normal" way through life. Once she has abandoned her better judgment and entered into marriage, her pride leads her to cling to the conventional way of things so that her error and her shame will not be broadcast into the world. It is interesting the way in which this most primal of sins pulls Ms. Archer in two ways, never offering a moment of piece or tranquility. In her ascendant phase, she rejects the approaches of two men who really love her, breaking down in tears after she sends one of them away--tears of anger and even rage that she should have to tell him to go away. In her decline, she once again breaks down into tears when she realizes that her pride leaves her no way out of her dilemma.

Pride is the central issue of the book. It is the cross on which our heroine is hoisted, and it is such an ugly sin that many will look upon it and say that perhaps she deserves what she has made for herself. As in many of James's works, the heroine is not particularly attractive. We're told that she's beautiful and has a way about her that seems to fascinate men. But the reality is that to the reader she presents a rather formidable, stern, and completely self-interested facade that does nothing to provoke any sympathy. Hence, the book cannot really be viewed as a tragedy. No more can one view it as "realism" or "life as it is," because this life is so warped out of any possibility of viewing it as normal. All around her, she has examples of women who have stepped out of conventionality to live a life that is more compatible with their spirits, but she disdains these role models in favor to the model she has built in her head. And so, she condemns herself to a life of misery or at least a long pause on a possible life of happiness. More wicked and horrible than that, she has it within her power to free another trapped in the same web as she is, and yet she refuses to do it--possibly creating another life in the image of her own. Oh, how our sins come home to roost and how that roosting increases them and their effects.

I'll end this jumble of part I for now, because if I do not do so, nothing will ever see the light of day. But there is much to think about in the case of Ms. Archer, and perhaps these notes have provoked some of you all to look into for the first time or refresh your acquaintance with Ms. Archer if you had perhaps the pleasure of make such a friend earlier on.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on June 10, 2008 11:29 AM.

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