:: Article

Stylized Despair: Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady

By Greg Gerke.

To my mind Henry James is a master of terror. Without bloodshed or the threat of guns, germs, or steel, James’s microscope fixes on the motivations that kill the human spirit. At the apex of the first half of his writing life is The Portrait of a Lady, a unique and pulsating work of art on the order of Leonardo, Shakespeare, and Beethoven—a novel about what James called “a certain young woman affronting her destiny.” Two versions exist: the original 1881 version and the revised New York Edition of 1907—both circulate freely today. How could this 130-year-old book slay me? How could its wisdom impact like a detonation? Not just with story, not just with character, but with sentences as stately as Dante’s terza rima in The Divine Comedy—lines like “She rested her weariness upon things that had crumbled for centuries and yet were still upright; she dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely…” “She” is Isabel Archer, the heroine, and she is looking at the ruins of Rome. James’s style flares and flowers out, compounding the story and sending the characters into a unique motion and awareness with each ornate sentence.

Along with the singular syntactical sensations generated by James’s 600-page masterpiece, the novel demonstrates how we become who we are, as perhaps no other novel I have read. This is mainly accomplished by examining the central character, Isabel. She is first seen as a young woman, fresh off the boat from America, looking at England askance, in search of experience but not knowing the rules or the local customs. Her insolence feeds off the sporting scene of high-stakes living as she feels the compassionate but still calculating and wanton eyes of her cousin, Ralph, and those of Lord Warburton, a man fully positioned and full of an endless supply of money. Isabel fends for herself very well; every ‘i’ is dotted as she holds up cautionary hands to the onslaught of men and women who wish to influence her until the appearance of Madame Merle, a woman of uncanny intellect and taste who brings the widower Osmond and his daughter Pansy into her trusting ken—figures who will lead to her downfall.

Most of what occurs in the novel passes in light of Isabel and her destiny, affronted or not. She is everywhere (the characters are in service of her) and James doesn’t let much happen without invoking her mind and her perceptions. The supporting cast wants to see her succeed—some only too well—as when Ralph convinces his dying father, Mr. Touchett, to leave 60,000 pounds to Isabel in his will, “to put it into her power to do some of the things she wants.” Though Ralph’s gesture is made with good intentions, he cannot conceive the unhappiness Isabel will grow into after she marries Osmond, enduring his suffocating lifestyle as the book hurtles toward one unforgiving ending. The heart of the story is, of course, money. Most of the characters, except Isabel at the beginning and to a degree Madame Merle, are very well off—even Osmond, an art collector, who, though he yearns for Isabel’s money, has enough to be comfortable when the reader first encounters him in Florence. Money changes the world as it changes lives. Money makes the most vicious cactus attractive to the healthiest hand and Osmond seduces Isabel to insure he will have hers.

As shown by how money complicates the human soul, life is flawed. We are fallible people and one of the reasons we read fiction is to read about other flawed persons, to see how they deal with their lot. All the characters in The Portrait contain idiosyncrasies and imperfections, rounding them into quiet and sprawling spheres of highest order and complexity, so each is a fleshy character with a specific number of hairs growing out of her and a memory full of her years lived, times of both happiness and confrontation. The characters on James’s pages give off scents the reader can distinctly smell—odors that come by vertiginous thought patterns as in the famous forty-second chapter where Isabel meditates on her troubled marriage, finding her life and her husband shameful:

Instead of leading to the high places of happiness, from which the world would seem to lie below one, so that one could look down with a sense of exaltation and advantage, and judge and choose and pity, it led rather downward and earthward, into realms of restriction and depression, where the sound of other lives, easier and freer, was heard as from above, and served to deepen the feelings of failure. It was her deep distrust of her husband—this was what darkened the world. That is a sentiment easily indicated, but not so easily explained, and so composite in its character that much time and still more suffering had been needed to bring it to its actual perfection.

In this excerpt, James’s architectonic sentences heighten Isabel’s devastating discovery. The repetition of d-words (three in both the first and second sentences [“deep distrust”]), drive Isabel down into a dungeon of sorrow. But all around, alliteration strikes as in “high places of happiness,” “feeling of failure,” “easily explained,” and “composite in its character,” as well as the matched endings of “downward and earthward” and “restriction and depression.” While Isabel’s twisting emotions prefigure the coming tragedies, the ugliness of lost love is rendered in such poetic and vivid terms that its beauty makes what happens that much more harrowing.

Later in the same chapter, there is another searing section of self-discovery, as Isabel continues to fight the once eager love for her slippery husband. She tries to see how he charmed her but feels she cannot blame him too much as she built up the wrong picture of him in her mind:

Ah, she had him immensely under the charm! It had not passed away; it was still; she knew perfectly what it was that made Osmond delightful when he chose to be. He had wished to be when he made love to her, and as she had wished to be charmed it was not wonderful that he succeeded. He succeeded because he was sincere; it never occurred to her to deny him that…She had a vision of him—she had not read him right. A certain combination of features had touched her, and in them she had seen the most striking of portraits. That he was poor and lonely, and yet that somehow he was noble—that was what interested her and seemed to give her opportunity. There was an indefinable beauty about him—in his situation, in his mind, in his face. She had felt at the same time that he was helpless and ineffectual, but the feeling had taken the form of a tenderness which was the very flower of respect. He was like a skeptical voyager, strolling on the beach while he waited for the tide, looking seaward yet not putting to sea.

Osmond is a man who can’t feel himself. As much as he controls his life, he still attempts to command the world’s air not to enter his body—steeling himself into a damaged, damaging, and despairing wall of greed who does not to surrender to love, or let anyone around him feel it. As Isabel sees this, James sees all, but then why does Isabel go on? Why does she let herself be squashed? This great unanswerable question is held over her as it hovers over the reader and I can’t find any more satisfactory response to this than James’s own:

The obvious criticism…will be that it is not finished—that I have not seen the heroine to the end of her situation…This is both true and false. The whole of anything is never told; you can only take what groups together. What I have done has that unity—it groups together. It is complete in itself—and the rest may be taken up or not, later. (The Notebooks of Henry James)

In real life, the need for money presses people into self-deception for the sake of gain. But how do people deal with the problems they harbor? Often they speak of something or someone in lieu of discussing themselves—the vicarious metaphor—yet these other people’s concerns are keenly reflected by their own. Because in The Portrait so many people’s interests are wrapped up with others’, the action of living vicariously never had a better handbook. One supreme example being toward the end, as Madame Merle and Isabel speak of the situation of Pansy’s marriage. Madame Merle is upset that Lord Warburton has left the city and will not pursue a marriage with Pansy any further. Isabel suggests Madame Merle discuss it with Osmond, to which she replies:

It isn’t information I want. At bottom, it’s sympathy. I had set my heart on that marriage; the idea did what so few things do—it satisfied the imagination.

Madame Merle had her heart set on a few marriages, most of all, that of Osmond and Isabel. Pansy is her daughter and even if she didn’t care what happened to Osmond, she knew that marrying the two would put Pansy in a privileged position, the money in Isabel’s bank funding Pansy’s future. As to the quote, Madame Merle (through ample deceptions) has more information than anyone in the novel, so her saying it isn’t information she wants is also one of the truest things she says. Her life has been a lie and she wants comfort. For a person to pretend her child does not exist, especially as she has a relationship with Pansy and speaks to her not always but often, is an awful life. The notion of “satisfying the imagination” is also intriguing. On one level Madame Merle is easing her conscience concerning Pansy and all the hopes she had. Yet for all of her flaws there is a kernel of truth in her dialogue. “So few things” do satisfy our imagination. The constant striving and struggle to succeed is our lot in life. No matter how much one accrues, one will ultimately want more to guarantee a time that no one has control over—the future. Ralph, Madame Merle, and Osmond all interfere on behalf of that evanescent, distant durée. Ralph’s machinations, along with Madame Merle’s and Osmond’s overthrowing of ethical bounds to satisfy their whims, conspire to destroy a young woman.

As William H. Gass says in Fiction and the Figures of Life:

…[James’s] moral anger is directed at all those who infringe human freedom, who make pawns of people, who feast on the poor, the naive, or the powerless, who use love to use…and in those sentences which mark the movement of his mind, his steady shift of position and deepening of view, we ourselves can complain of being caught–caged–victimized.

The beauty of James’s sentences victimizes us. The sinuous souls of humans caught are dramatized by James with a grand and clear perception. Words in any part of the text boil and reverberate, and set us smoldering, ashamed of what we do to each other throughout, as in the middle of the book, where Pansy listens to Madame Merle’s call for her to obey:

Pansy stared, disappointed, but not protesting. She was evidently impregnated with the idea of submission, which was due to any one who took the tone of authority; and she was a passive spectator of the operation of her fate.

This ghostly impregnation mirrors Pansy’s own half-acknowledged existence, as “evidently” becomes the triggering word, an adverb so wide and slick a saint would have trouble keeping upright on its icy surface. Would James have it any other way?

Greg Gerke’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, Denver Quarterly, Quarterly West, Mississippi Review, LIT, Film Comment, and others. He lives in Brooklyn.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, May 30th, 2013.