Portrait of a Lady

Topics: Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady, New York Edition Pages: 5 (1744 words) Published: August 31, 2011
First written in the 1880s and extensively revised in 1908, The Portrait of a Lady is often considered to be James's greatest achievement. In it, he explored many of his most characteristic themes, including the conflict between American individualism and European social custom and the situation of Americans in Europe. James proclaimed that “The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent reality.” Plot was for him but the extension of character. The novel must show rather than tell — he was interested in why people did as they did, rather than simply in what they did; motive was more important than deed. The observer of the dinner table and the drawing room, the country house and the salon, the library and the smoking room, James was driven, Richard Palmer Blackmur asserts, to excesses of substantiation and renunciation and refinement (in experience and morals and style). If I put Blackmur’s statement more positively, I would say that James in his endless probing of character pushed the novel from pre-modernism to modernism by turning the novel inward, from an outward perspective to an inward one, and by focusing increasingly on a character’s inner life. This transition begins to take its effect with The Portrait of a Lady. Its formal brilliance makes it the pivotal, unavoidable novel of the late Victorian period, offering us crucial insights into the transition from Victorian to Modernist novel forms. Considered by many as one of the finest novels in the English language, this is Henry James's most poised achievement, written at the height of his fame in 1881. It is at once a dramatic Victorian tale of betrayal and a wholly modern psychological study of a woman caught in a web of relations she only comes to understand too late. -a culmination of Victorian Realism and the beginnings of the emergence of a new 'Modernist' style that explores interior states of consciousness as well as the individual's place in society. -the novel opens up a brilliant sense of capturing the complexity of being human. -critics then and now praise its attention to psychological detail and realistic situations. In The Portrait of a Lady we have first a third-person authorial narrator who tells us about Isabel, but as the narrative goes on, the focus becomes more and more set on Isabel Archer—to the point that when she ponders her situation (chapter 42). Here she ponders her misery, what is she going to do, feeling betrayed by her husband? which alternatives does she have? And that is the first time in Jamesian fiction that the narrator actually moves inward, that is, in a way we no longer have a narrator speaking about a character but it is a narrator rendering the character’s words and thoughts. That chapter in The Portrait of a Lady is really what might be called a milestone in narrative technique, because it is this moving inward, Presenting the character’s, i.e. Isabel’s thoughts, emotions as she weighs her situation, what she is going to do, pondering her options. And this is all told from an inner perspective, that is, the narrator receding behind the character. So what we have here is really a step towards Modernism. From pre-Modernism to something like Proto-Modernism. Yet at the end of the chapter, the narrator—we might even say here, James—seems to have been really shocked by the revelations opened to him, because he withdraws and lets Isabel again stay out there. He will not return to that kind of inner perspective; rather the narrator writes about her or writes her, it is not that the narrator writes her thoughts but writes her actions. Thus, what we have in the end is a glimpse into Modernism and a hasty withdrawal to traditional techniques, as if James had been scared by the vision of an independent female character. This ending, that Isabel in a way decides to stay within social norms, within the marriage, becomes a classic move of the late 19th century. It is a withdrawal, that is she remains or...
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