More About James

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Yesterday's post was unsatisfyingly vague because I didn't want to disrupt the enjoyment of anyone who had not yet encountered this truly wondeful book. Let that serve as a warning to all who have not yet read it as they proceed into this post.

The Portrait of a Lady:Genesis of the Anti-Hero?

It seems reasonable that if Hamlet can be listed in the rosters of the anti-hero, so too can Isabel Archer. Like Hamlet, Isabel might otherwise be considered a tragic hero, but here "heroic flaw" pierces so deep and so profoundly divides her character that it is really impossible to sympathize with her dilemma. She has so thoroughly compromised herself with her uncompromisability that she is no longer emotionally accessible to the reader.

This last point is interesting. In a discussion with a friend the other day, he suggested that James never intended Isabel Archer to be emotionally approachable or even likeable. If indeed, this is an accurate reflection of James's intention, he succeeds admirably. If, on the other hand, the reader is supposed to be engaged by Miss Archer, James has failed miserably to make her engaging.

Looking through the Jamesian Canon, one finds a plethora of female characters in similar situation. Neither of the leads of The Golden Bowl is particularly attractive. Catherine of Washington Square is anything but likeable, approachable, or even in any real sense knowable. The principles of The Spoils of Poynton are so thoroughly offputting one is put in mind of Anne River Siddons Fox's Earth. The nursemaid of The Turn of the Screw is even more a ghost that the ghost she may not see. And Daisy Miller is made to be unlikeable start to finish--once she meets her end from one or another disease, the reader breathes a sigh of relief and moves on. The catalog is not exhaustive, nor is my acquaintance with James's work, but call this a working hypothesis. What is fascinating about James's work is how he manages to engage the reader without giving the reader a central figure who is particularly sympathetic or engaging.

In The Portrait of a Lady, the engagement comes largely from the characters that fill Isabel's world--Mr. Touchett, Mrs. Touchett, Ralph Touchett, Lord Warburton, Caspar Goodwood, Harriet Stackpole, Mr. Bantling (on the good side), the Countess Gemini (in the ambiguous mode), and Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle (on the bad side.) Pansy, Isabel's stepdaughter, seems to take after her stepmother in the realm of unsympathetic heroines. In a way akin to Catherine of Washington Square, the demur submissiveness of Pansy is an appalling spectacle to behold, and Isabel's inadvertent assist of this least attractive of Pansy's qualities is another point that deflects the reader's sympathies from Isabel.

In this swirl of interesting and mostly likable characters, Isabel stands out as something of a vacuum, a black hole of sympathy. Watch her interactions with others and read her interior monologue and the reader becomes become progressively chilled, as the realization dawns that one is in the presence of a committed egomaniac--a person without any outside anchor in reality to ground her theories and notions, and thus a ship untethered in fair weather or foul and likely to run aground at the first shoal.

And the reader sees this again and again as first she rejects the advances of Lord Warburton, and then of Caspar Goodwood, and even the gentle non-advance of Ralph Touchett, who is wise enough to understand that he is not even in the running. And it is through the kindness and thoughtfulness of Ralph that Isabel achieves the wealth to allow for her destruction. Ralph entreats his dying father to alter his will to leave a living to him and to his mother, but to settle the bulk of the estate on his cousin Isabel Archer. It is this wealth that precipitates the decline that occupies the second half of the novel.

Because she is now a woman of means, she becomes attractive to a pair of schemers (somewhat similar in mode to The Wings of the Dove, who proceed to plan her "demise." Madame Merle, whose name indicates "blackbird" in French, and whose name, the book notes informed me, is supposed to remind me of Madame Mertuil of Les Laiasons Dangereuses, is the primary instigator. It is her chance meeting with Isabel and her acquaintance with Gilbert Osmond that defines the action of the remainder of the book.

I must leave off at this point, and if I can, I will return to the declining action of the book. But, I have a quick trip to NYC and Boston in the interim, so I don't know where I'll be by the time my head settles.

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Hi, Stephen! I had a different interpretation on Isabel Archer when I read that book years ago. It was 20 or 30 years ago, so I am sure I have the details confused, but this is the impression I remember of the book from when I read it.

To my thinking, you have to consider Isabel Archer's predicament as a very "modern" one as of the time when the book was written. She was, and was expected to be, a Victorian era "lady". At the same time, she was educated and "modern". The women's suffrage movement was afoot ("The Bostonians"), and the different worlds in which intellectual, Boston- educated American (read: independent) women and traditional women lived was part of what another James novel ("An International Episode") was about. The very independent, wealthy, but terminally ill character of "The Wings of the Dove" was based on his real life cousin. Archer seemed to me to be one of those Victorian Era independent (pre-feminist) women whose inner conflicts arose from living in an era in which they were expected to be Victorian ladies, while their true identities did not fit the mold.

I don't know that James meant these characters to be unlikeable. Perhaps they were just very conflicted and yet they lived in an era in which it was very socially unacceptable for them to openly express these conflicts.

It may be that she had made her bed and had to lie in it, but I don't know that she had any very good choices. Of the men in the book, none of them were really very well suited for her, as far as I recall. Or what do you think would have been her best option?

I am enjoying reading your thoughts and look forward to more.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on June 11, 2008 7:52 AM.

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