Portrait of a ‘Portrait’ | Daily News


Portrait of a ‘Portrait’

“Art”, Yeats wrote in his essay on ‘The Thinking of the Body,’ “just bids us touch and taste and hear and see the world, and shrink from what Blake calls mathematical form, from every abstract thing, from all that is of the brain only.”

If we are to heed Yeats’ advice and read Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady,’ today, touching and hearing and tasting the world of Isabel Archer, there is a possibility we will find ourselves in the United States of the present, even as Covid-19 virus takes its toll. The only difference between Isabel’s world and the US of today, might be the masks on the faces of our characters and the sanitizers in our pockets.

On the other hand, if you wish to turn a blind eye to the sad state of things all over the world today and read the ‘Portrait’ concentrating more on Ralph Touchett, Isabel’s cousin, than on the young woman searching for utopia, you might end up feeling Ralph is an older version of Martin Wickremasinghe’s Aravinda. Perhaps you will contemplate for days and weeks, wondering, what if Wickremasinghe had chosen Sarojini as the heroine of ‘Viragaya’ over Aravinda Jayasena. Wouldn’t Viragaya then have been a Sri Lankan version of ‘A Portrait’ focusing on Sarojini’s marriage to Siridasa in much the same way James portrays Isabel’s marriage with Gilbert Osmond.

To summarize the ‘Portrait’ for the uninitiated, Isabel is a beautiful, spirited American, brought to Europe by her wealthy Aunt Touchett. Showing how well James sought in his fiction to realistically capture life, in the portrait of Isabel, he paints with words, the many choices one must make in one’s life. In the novel many men are infatuated or in love with Isabel and there are many moments we find ourselves holding our breath wondering who will be the chosen one.

First, there is Lord Warburton, an aristocrat whom Isabel finds fascinating but is not in love with. He is surprised she turned him down, as he is a leader in Parliament and owns a castle! Is it the moat? he asks. “No,” says Isabel. “I adore a moat.”

What is it then?

Sadly, it is not her infirm and generous cousin, Ralph even though for those of us who believe in soul mates, Ralph and Isabel are perfectly matched. Then there is the kind American, Caspar Goodwood, to whom Isabel is attracted, but refuses to marry.

She postpones marriage to travel abroad for a year and seek her independence and gets caught in Gilbert Osmond’s web. Gilbert, an American art collector living in Florence, seduces Isabel and marries her – motivated, we soon learn, for the fortune she has inherited from her uncle. He treats her like one of the many objects he covets, and after his seduction is complete, she remains to him nothing more than an object on his shelf or a painting on his wall.

Critic Leo Edel summarizing the plot says: “At moments the story verges on melodrama when it is not pure fairy-tale: a rich uncle, a poor niece, an ugly rich cousin who worships her from a distance, three suitors an heiress and finally her betrayal by a couple of her cosmopolitan compatriots into a marriage as sinister as the backdrop of a Bronte novel.” “And yet to say this,” explains Edd, “is to offer a gross caricature of a warm and human work.”

Touche, if you felt this description sounds familiar. In some ways, ‘Portrait’ does seem similar to the works of George Eliot, but James in his novel does not give into moralizing and exegesis the way Eliot does. He presents his story without ever giving into elaborate statements and attracts the reader to the heroine through her wonderful yet naive aspiration for complete freedom.

“I always want to know the things one should do.”

“So as to do them?’ asked her Aunt.

“So as to choose,” said Isabel.

There are readers who have a low opinion of Isabel’s intelligence because she selects Gilbert Osmond after refusing ‘real men’ like Casper Goodwood and Lord Warburton, and remains blind to the ‘tender chivalry of Ralph Touchett. But what we must not forget is that by making her choose the wrong man, James enhances Isabel’s tragic splendor and makes her ‘Portrait’ shine out forever.

Either way, there is no doubt when James wrote to his brother saying that in his next novel he aims to achieve something ‘big’ he had realized his aim to the very last letter in ‘The Portrait’. James said of his book that a “single small corner-stone” grew into a “large building”, large enough in form for him to “make an ado” about Isabel Archer. According to Edel, James puts his own childhood and his own desire for freedom into Isabel, while the chilling and conventional expatriate Gilbert resembles a portrait of what James would have become “if he had allowed snobbery to prevail over humanity”.

Most critics agree the real subjects of the novel are “egotism and power”. Fred Kaplan, however, thinks that Isabel’s story is a “nightmare”: “Behind the sophisticated portrayal of mores and personality … the world of Portrait is a threatening, often deathly world of repression and annihilation, where no one is happy, no one is saved.”

It is Michael Gorra who puts into words the uneasy feelings any reader of the ‘Portrait’ who reads it today will feel about the state of things in the book having similarities with the current situation in the US. Gorra argues that Portrait is “a critique of American exceptionalism” and explains: “The historical paradox for Americans is that they believe in a republican egalitarianism – all are created equal – and in the freedom to pursue, competitively, individual happiness. Isabel (leaving America, turning down a nice English lord and a determined Bostonian, choosing Osmond because she thinks he is a free agent) insists that she must be free to write her own plot. She will not be measured by what surrounds her – clothes, houses, money, traditions. She believes “in her own autonomy, her own enabling isolation: a belief, and a dream, that all her later experience will challenge”. As the sinister and subtle Madame Merle suggests to her, in a conversation about the limits of the self, echoing thoughts that are sadly true of the present, complete “self-sufficiency” is impossible.

Likewise, in Europe Isabel “learns that her own life” has already “been determined”. She finds that for her, as for America, there is no such thing as a “fresh start” or a “city on a hill” or a “new world” – knowledge most migrants in America must have gained through experience, in the past few months. There is no doubt that the other ways of reading Isabel – as a young woman afraid of intimate experiences, as an innocent fallen into corrupt hands, as an enactment of James’s passion for Europe, as a characterization of solitude – take second place to this political and timely interpretation.

What is more, in two centuries since the novel was first serialized in The Atlantic Monthly, Isabel’s decision has grown in importance. Does she return to her husband in Rome out of wifely duty? To rescue her stepdaughter, Pansy? Or to free herself from the marriage, thus regaining her independence and prefiguring the political and social emancipation of women in general?

True to his theme of depicting life as it is in his novels, James does not give us the answers. Isabel’s fate remains a mystery in much the same way the fate of our entire world remains a mystery in the face of a deadly virus.

But in spite of this or because of it, we must carry on. Because things will never be how we want them to be. As James wrote in The Portrait, “‘Things are always different than what they might be, if you wait for them to change, you will never do anything.‘”

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