The Master Craftsman: Function Follows Form in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady
Douglas Bauer | March/April 2015
In 1905, at the height of his reputation, Henry James happily accepted the invitation of his American publisher, Scribner, to bring out a definitive edition of his books. He decided, in honor of the city of his birth, to call the works as selected and collected the New York Edition. With the contract signed, he set out on what became a four-year long literary labor, a meticulous line-by-line reconsideration of the eighteen books he chose to include. To each of them he also added a preface describing the germ of the idea and the formal questions he addressed as he worked from conception to completion. As we know, these prefaces were themselves collected and became his irreplaceable book, The Art of the Novel, which can be seen, among other ways, as an extraordinarily useful book on matters of craft, though the Master would no doubt spin, no doubt with formal elegance, in his grave at the thought that it might be thought of in such prosaic, tool-kit terms.
In his preface to The Portrait of a Lady, James writes that the creative spark that began the novel was his “grasp of a single character—an acquisition I had made, moreover, after a fashion not here to be retraced.”1 He goes on to say that as the character came to him, untraceable and whole, she was a “mere slim shade of an intelligent but presumptuous girl.”2 And we note that even in that first glimmer James “saw” something more than an image, more than just the physical appearance of a slim young woman, whom he would come to name Isabel Archer. Besides the details of her slenderness and her youth, his character presented herself with such already deepening elements as the quality of her mind—she was “intelligent”—and an aspect of her personality—she was “presumptuous.”
Even more, James realized that his character was a “certain young woman affronting her destiny.”3 It is a considerable understatement to say that Henry James did not use language loosely, so his choice of the word “affronting” is significant. He does not say, “confronting,” as in, to acknowledge her destiny, to come face to face with it. Instead, he imagines his intelligent and presumptuous young girl affronting her destiny, which takes the encounter beyond the notion of merely meeting it and sizing it up. It suggests an additionally active, maybe more combative, defiant, even disrespectful though hardly dismissive attitude toward what life appears to have in store for her. James is imagining a contest between a character and her circumstances that contains, by definition, some degree of dramatic tension and requires her to demonstrate both will and wit. All of this implying the embryo of story, or at least an array of emotions and psychologies that will propel the story.
I dwell on James’s account of how The Portrait of A Lady began, not to suggest that we must follow suit and wait for our character to appear in a vision that’s enviably on the way to being fully formed. If that were the case, some of us might be waiting a very long time. The point is that we can see, as James readily saw, that his vision was pure gift, an icon of his brilliant imagination. We can also see that it has nothing to do with all the subsequent demands of narrative design, of character dimension, of questions about pace and tone and time and chronology. Nothing to do, that is, with all those conscious, considered decisions we make about the thing we are making before and as we make it.
And James saw this as well. He loved to think and write in quite diagnostic, if grandly metaphorical, terms about the fiction writer’s technical considerations and he gave the rest of his preface to them, a discussion of what he did with the gift he got. After all, he wrote, “millions of presumptuous girls, intelligent or not… daily affront their destiny, and what is it open to their destiny to be, that we should make an ado about it?”4 Quite “consciously,” he recognized that “that was what [he] was in for—for positively organizing an ado about Isabel Archer.”5
“Organizing an ado” is another way, an acutely Jamesian way, of referring to the requirements of craft. So let’s set aside the gift of Isabel Archer’s unbidden arrival and examine some of the decisions James the craftsman made in the writing of what is generally regarded as his first masterpiece.
The First Ellipsis
Nearly halfway through the novel, as Chapter 30 gives to Chapter 31, the narrative jumps significantly forward, bypassing one of its major events, creating a chronological gap of one year. A bit of plot discussion is necessary here. Unfortunately, like all such summaries, stripped of shading and nuance, it has the sound of a soap opera, which anyone who has read the novel, or anything of James, knows it is not.
Isabel Archer is twenty-one years old as the novel begins, the youngest—and the only unmarried—of three orphaned sisters. Their father is recently dead, their mother died when Isabel was very young, and she has accepted the invitation of her wealthy and eccentric Aunt Lydia Touchett to leave Albany, New York and come to Europe where she, Lydia, has long lived an expatriate life, primarily in Florence and apart from her husband, Daniel, who has made a great fortune—an American in the world of English banking. Daniel is now old and weak and spends his days with a blanket draped across his knees, taking tea and conversation at his magnificent country estate, Gardencourt. There he is looked after by his and Mrs. Touchett’s son, Ralph—Isabel’s cousin—who is also gravely ill with tuberculosis. But at this early point in the novel, Ralph retains the strength to dote on the father he adores, to delight in his droll kindness, and to himself lead a life of alert idleness.
Here, at Gardencourt, is where Isabel arrives, and with her vibrant American openness, her uniquely striking, black-haired beauty, and her announced wish to see the great, wide world and determine how well it aligns with the romantic view of it she has formed from the novels and histories she omnivorously reads, here is where Isabel proceeds to charm most everyone she meets. This includes Mr. Touchett, and cousin Ralph, and two dazzled suitors—an English lord, who offers her the incalculable wealth and luxury only English lords can and a wealthy young iron-jawed American businessman, who succumbed to Isabel’s charms before the novel even began and has followed her across the ocean to propose. In quick succession, she rejects both of them, for particular reasons that have in common her stated fear of losing her independence, her liberty. These are words she frequently employs, and they are ones she sincerely believes she knows the meaning of. I put it this way because the overarching question James continually poses in Portrait is just what does constitute a life of personal independence, one that does not by necessity mean emotional solitude; one that includes others who, in their lives, have an interest in influencing yours, however natural, however benign or malign that interest might be. Is such responsible freedom achievable to some, but not to others? Is it achievable, to anyone, at all?
In her liberated eagerness, Isabel has all the advantages I have mentioned. Beauty. Brains. Boldness. What she does not have is money. But her cousin Ralph, who is very much in love with her—though his illness, as he sees it, disqualifies him—proposes to his father that he change his will, giving Isabel half the money he had planned to leave to him. Which is to say, a fortune. “She wishes to be free,” he says to his father, “and your bequest will make her free.”6 In fact, Ralph’s motives are far more complicated than that, but he does mean what he says here. “I wish to put a little wind in her sails.”7 Daniel, Ralph’s father, admires Isabel immensely but fears she “may fall a victim to the fortune-hunters.”8
“That’s a risk,” Ralph admits, “but I think it’s small.”9
Daniel dies. Isabel inherits seventy-thousand pounds. Enter Gilbert Osmond, another American expatriate, a widower with a young daughter, Pansy, who has lived mostly in Italy for many years, and is renowned for his exquisite taste—in art, in objets, in décor, in all matters of social propriety—but is otherwise a man who proclaims himself singularly devoid of ambition and of any interest in the vulgar pursuit of position or wealth. To be vulgar is the deepest insult Gilbert Osmond could think to direct at you and in his view most things and people are.
I don’t need to connect the dots for you. But to make sure his readers could, James takes us to two places from which the unwitting Isabel is excluded. The first is a series of conversations between Osmond and a pivotal character named Madame Merle, who share a devious history that is gradually revealed over the course of the novel. Here we overhear them plotting to draw Isabel into the web of Osmond’s bloodlessly calculated charm. In addition, we are taken into Osmond’s mind where, having succeeded in winning Isabel’s heart, he admits to himself that he is “happier” than he has ever been in his life. It was his “style,” he muses, that had lured her in. And “now she should publish it to the world without his having any of the trouble. She should do the thing for him, and he would not have waited in vain.”10
Throughout the novel, James gives a “what did they know and when did they know it” dynamic to his narrative, one that shifts several times and realigns its players. As readers, we are among the players and often, as here, we are uncomfortably allied with Osmond. Allied, that is, in terms of shared information: he knows who he really is and we know who he really is, long before Isabel does. That is the case for much of the novel—Isabel vulnerably alone with her ignorance. But there are other times, and I will get to them, where the characters, most significantly Isabel herself, have the necessary information the reader must wait for.
The narrative, then, leading up to the first ellipsis, becomes a calibrated build up of Isabel’s feelings for Osmond, one the informed reader watches with a correspondingly rising despair. Until, on a group holiday in Rome, which Isabel has invited Osmond to join, James fashions an instant I want to look at closely.
The Quickly Passing Moment Writ Large
Isabel is readying to leave Osmond and the rest of her party to begin an extended period of travel. She has fallen in love with Osmond, that is clear both to him and to us, but it is uncertain when the two might see each other next. On her last night, they have a conversation in the hotel lobby. James has decorated it in a riot of yellows, oranges, and purples. It is as if he is having some fun at Osmond’s expense by putting him through a bit of extreme aesthetic discomfort. We can sense the man of impeccable taste, who values quietude in people and upholstery equally, suppressing a cringe of disgust at the assaultive ambience as he tells Isabel he has something he must say to her.
“I’m speaking very seriously,” Osmond says. And then James writes, “He leaned forward, a hand on each knee; for some moments he bent his eyes on the floor. ‘What I wish to say to you,’ he went on at last, looking up,”—the italics are mine and I stop to note how sharply we can see the specificity of Osmond’s physical posture as James describes it, and also how finely we sense the perfectly timed pregnant pause, then the grave, slowly lifting eyes, all of it combining to create an enactment of the studied pose, of the thing rehearsed. It’s a virtual physical parody, if a most sinister one, in its fidelity to the form, and Osmond is a man who values form above all. Because we know what Osmond is up to, we can perceive the artificiality, but Isabel, the still-naïve young woman in love, would not.
“‘What I wish to say to you,’ he went on at last, looking up, ‘is that I find I’m in love with you.’”11
How dramatically enormous a tiny moment in time can be if we have the Jamesian patience to create it fully; the patience to let our characters behave as completely as people do in life. We must be selective, of course; we cannot elaborate every gesture our characters make to this careful degree. But in this instance, James has selected well in giving appropriate significance to an apparently generic moment that might otherwise threaten to lure a writer into thinking, I’ll say he’s sitting down, and then I’ll have him speak his line, and everyone will know it’s a lie, and that will be that.
The narrative attention to Isabel in love continues to gain momentum into the next chapter, just before the first ellipsis, when she heeds Osmond’s request to visit his beloved daughter Pansy before she, Isabel, leaves Italy for who knows how long. Underscoring the depth of her delusion, James describes this final exchange between Osmond’s lover and his daughter who are united at this point by their adoration of him. Pansy has been forbidden by her father to walk in his absence beyond the door that opens into the courtyard. Frighteningly obedient creature that she is, she says to Isabel, “I may go no further. I’ve promised papa not to pass this door.”12
And Isabel responds: “You’re right to obey him; he’ll never ask you anything unreasonable.”13 There’s an ominousness in their exchange worthy of one of James’s great ghost stories—the daughter’s brainwashed behavior and Isabel’s admiring approval of it, an admiration for what she thinks it says about the girl, and more, what she believes it says about her father.
The propulsion of Osmond and Isabel’s romance carries us headlong into the following chapter. Eager for the next installment, we must read most of a page before it is clear that, in fact, an entire year has passed. As we are working to get our bearings again, we get the news that Isabel has traveled widely during this year, and at the moment we rejoin her she is in Florence, standing in one of Mrs. Touchett’s many receiving rooms, waiting for a visitor. What James proceeds to do next, for the length of this chapter and a page or two of the chapter following it, is on its face a violation, on the scale of a felony, against a rule of craft. For he leaves the base-line of narrative—the unfolding story of the two lovers; and, even more immediately, leaves Isabel standing in the room waiting for her unnamed visitor—and wanders tangentially away for more than seven pages of her global itinerary, Paris, Switzerland, London, Greece, Turkey, Egypt.
I cannot count the times I have criticized student work for allowing narratives to diverge like this, invoking the principle that you cannot leave the current moment (Isabel in the receiving room) for such a disproportionately long time, else your reader will grow too impatient to return to the immediate story and, more than likely, lose interest altogether.
So how does James make this work to his advantage, if he does?
I do think he does, for a couple of reasons. First, as I said, we are carried right up to that point where the narrative wanders off on the strength of fully realized and energetic prose. Consequently, we are—we do grow—increasingly impatient to return to the news of Isabel and Osmond. But in this case, it is that very impatience James wants to create.
It works, too, because of two quick and subtle references embedded in the page-long paragraphs detailing Isabel’s year of travel. The first: while she was in Paris, she found the city “noisily vacant”14 compared to Rome, the memory of which “was like a [revivifying] phial of something pungent hidden in her handkerchief.”15 Well, we know who was in Rome and what happened there and what memories that pungency consequently stirs. So we have a clear sense of Isabel’s mind and heart while she was gone. We may not be happy, for Isabel’s sake, to know what that sense is, but for our own, as invested readers, we are grateful for the knowledge.
Second, we learn in literally one sentence that on Isabel’s return from Egypt to Rome, Gilbert Osmond traveled down from Florence and, because Isabel was staying with his old friend Madame Merle, it was only natural that he would visit every day for three weeks. Madame Merle and Osmond! The dreaded tag-team! Every day for three weeks! Then the travelogue resumes in its studiedly affectless tone, as if the information about Osmond’s three-week visit were no more important than the details of the meals Isabel ate in Athens.
Only after all that does James return to Isabel waiting in Mrs. Touchett’s palazzo for her visitor, who turns out to be her former American suitor, Caspar Goodwood. He gets a letter from her that has inspired him to pick up and sail across the ocean again, and James makes Goodwood’s unvarnished American mood plain when he starts their dialogue: “I’d rather see you dead than married to someone else.”16 This is how readers come to know explicitly that Isabel is going to marry Osmond and the words don’t even come from Isabel’s mouth. It’s true, once we heard about those daily visits to Madame Merle’s flat, we assumed what we now learn for certain. Still, it’s an awfully indirect way of finding out. We were relegated to eavesdroppers, and who knows how or when we would get the word if Goodwood hadn’t crossed the Atlantic to offer Isabel ten minutes of his wounded braying.
The Second Ellipsis
Four chapters after the first ellipsis, there’s another more radical one, the resulting gap this time not a single year but three. And the events of Isabel’s life during that time are even more significant; they comprise, as we learn, the first years of her married life with Osmond. But again, just as we were not there to hear Osmond propose, neither were we invited to the wedding. We were not witness to their happy first year of marriage, even though that year included the death of a six-month old son. And we observed nothing of the subsequent two years, during which their happiness has unraveled.
James conveys all this information through a conversation that touches only indirectly on Isabel’s life. Indeed, this time Isabel is not even in the scene. Instead, the participants are the duplicitous Madame Merle and a young man named Edward Rosier, a barely glimpsed character until now. He is a childhood friend of Isabel’s who has come to ask Madame Merle’s advice on how he might win the hand of Osmond’s daughter, Pansy. Yes, the same “I shan’t pass the threshold” Pansy has reached a marriageable age. It is one of the ways James tells us without telling us that three years have passed.
In the course of their talk, Rosier says to Madame Merle, “I think Mrs. Osmond would favor me.”17 Favor, that is, his marrying Pansy. But who is Mrs. Osmond? Is he speaking for some reason of Osmond’s dead wife? The name causes us a moment of disorientation, for we have actually yet to see Isabel in this role. Still another way that James reminds us how long we have been away.
To Rosier, Madame Merle replies, “Very likely—if her husband doesn’t.”18
Rosier asks if it is the case that Isabel tends to “take the opposite line”19 from Osmond, and Madame Merle responds, “In everything.”20
Thus we start to know how things are between Mr. and Mrs. Osmond.
When writers decide to delay the revelation of vital information, it means the narrative has made a turn the reader does not know about until after it has occurred. Given these terms of exclusion, the question becomes whether or not the resulting surprise is one that is earned.
There are many paths to the cheap, unearned surprise. In the case of Portrait, it might be an interesting exercise to make up a few post-ellipses cheap, unearned surprises. Something such as Isabel’s return to Florence after her year of travel, deliriously happy in her marriage to a Venetian gondolier.
What is key here to James earning his narrative surprises is his making Isabel’s feelings about her life with Osmond after the ellipses, after we have rejoined her, what we were led, before the breaks, to assume they would be. In the first case, we knew she was very much in love before the year of separation and we got a couple of essential hints during it, enough to believe nothing will have changed when James picks up her story. And indeed, we learn, nothing has.
With the second ellipsis, three years into her marriage, we discover that Isabel is quite miserable. And again, James has laid the groundwork leading up to that three-year gap to make logical her emotional state on rejoining her.
Here’s how: In the pages just before the second narrative break, he pits Isabel defending her upcoming marriage against those closest to her who strongly object to it. First, her Aunt Lydia says of Osmond, “There’s nothing of him… He has no money; he has no name; he has no importance. I value such things and I have the courage to say it.”21
Readers are not surprised by Mrs. Touchett’s unapologetic snobbery. She has displayed it quite “courageously” from the start. But Isabel’s adoring cousin, Ralph, is even more expansive in his objections. He says of Osmond, “I believed you’d marry a man of more importance.”22
To which Isabel deftly replies, “Of more importance to whom? It seems to me enough that one’s husband should be of importance to one’s self.”23
Their argument continues in this vein, until Isabel says, “You talk about one’s soaring and sailing, but if one marries at all one touches the earth.”24 And here James shows us an Isabel who has begun to shed her romantic idealism and will soon start to see, if she does not already, the world in something like its actual dimensions. Unfortunately, she is far from seeing Osmond so keenly. For she adds, to Ralph, “[Mr. Osmond] knows everything, he understands everything, he has the kindest, gentlest, highest spirit.”25 And: “Mr. Osmond’s simply a very lonely, a very cultivated, and a very honest man—he’s not a prodigious proprietor.”26
These exchanges do not make us like Osmond any more than we have to. We know too much about him to hear Isabel’s defense as anything other than disastrously mistaken. But they do, at least at the moment, make us like Isabel’s supposed allies, especially Ralph, somewhat less, for the snooty condescension with which they object to Osmond. In other words, Isabel demonstrates in these conversations that she will enter her marriage bringing all the right motives, all the right motivations, all the right moral grounding, and even the embryonic beginning of the right understanding of what marriage means. But, and here’s the point: her defense only underscores the one thing she has wrong—the man she’s marrying. If she had brought the sum of all that “right” sensibility to a person who deserved it, things would have been just fine (and James would not have had a novel).
Also, at the very brink of the second ellipsis, the three-year gap, James makes sure to emphasize the harshness of the dissonance created by Isabel’s gross misperception of Osmond and his heartless designs on her. He does this by taking us once again into Osmond’s mind: “[Isabel’s] intelligence was to be a silver plate, not an earthen one—a plate that he might heap up with ripe fruits, to which it would give a decorative value, so that talk might become for him a sort of served dessert. He found the silver quality in this perfection in Isabel; he could tap her imagination with his knuckle and make it ring.”27 Of course, the silver plate of her intelligence must be empty of her ideas in order for Osmond to heap the ripe fruits of his upon it. Earlier he had said, to Madame Merle, that Isabel’s only flaw was that she had too many ideas. Fortunately, he added, all of them were bad and could be easily dismissed. Osmond, in other words, holds to the bizarre idea that one can possess a keenly intelligent mind, as Isabel does, and yet keep that mind entirely free of ideas, as he assumes, with his assistance, Isabel’s can be. In a fundamental way, it is this preposterous misconception that lies at the heart of his and Isabel’s increasing disaffection.
And so, as the narrative reaches the second gap in time, we witness Isabel’s quickly growing maturity and hear Osmond’s absurd Machiavellian miscalculations. Surely, we think, with such discord brewing, Isabel will realize in not too many years how wrong she’s been. Then we read that it’s three years later. We have returned to her in her married life. And we learn again that, given what we knew before the break, we were right.
Along with an examination of James’s elliptical narrative design, the accompanying question is why he chose it. Here I turn to an intriguing interpretation that belongs in part to Graham Greene, who is cited by the critic and biographer, Michael Gorra, in his recent book, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece. Gorra quotes from Greene’s essay “The Dark Backward”: “A novelist’s individual technique is more than anything else a means of evading the personally impossible, of disguising a deficiency.”28 From that, Gorra continues, “Lesser writers never realize their limitations. Many great ones stumble over something a hack might do with ease.”29 In James’s work generally, Gorra says, “[He] has a preference for finished states” and is “not all that interested in [depicting] courtship.”30 To that I would only interject that James might not have been all that interested in depicting courtship but he nevertheless patiently traces Osmond’s of Isabel in brilliant psychological detail.
Gorra writes that “James has… an unwillingness to dramatize the process of decision.”31 And in the case of The Portrait of a Lady that rings true. Repeatedly, he takes us right up to the moment of Isabel making a decision. He gives us more than ample incident and information and impression that, we understand, inform her decisions. But as for the decisive instant itself, however cerebral, however reflexive, it happens off the page, as in the cases we have just seen.
James’s imagination, Gorra writes, was “persistently drawn to the moment of refusal… He would never be comfortable in showing us the drama of acceptance.”32
Make of all this what you will, but if nothing else, keep handy the idea when you’re struggling with your work that “many great writers stumble over something a hack can do with ease.” If we stumble over enough, might we not count ourselves geniuses?
James’s Use of Stream of Consciousness and Isabel’s Long Night by the Fire
If, as Michael Gorra contends, James was something less than confident when faced with leading his characters to a moment of decision or acceptance, there is one component of The Portrait of a Lady about which he was more characteristically quite sure. In his Preface he called it “obviously the best thing in the book,”33 and he is referring to a night, at the nadir of Isabel’s unhappiness, that she spends in “meditative vigil.”34 He says that his ambitions for this chapter were to give it “all the vivacity of incident and all the economy of picture.”35
We recognize what James is describing as an example of stream of consciousness narrative and it would be remiss not to note that the phrase and the concept it defines was first offered by James’s older brother, the great philosopher, William James, in his book The Principles of Psychology. William James wrote that earlier thinkers conceived of consciousness as “like one who should say a river consists of nothing but palesful, spoonsful, quartpotsful, barrelsful, and other moulded forms of water.”36 Not so, William James wrote. Consciousness is not segmented. It is not comprised of discrete “moulded forms.” It’s instead continuous, flowing at a varying pace, yielding variously sized portions, but flowing, continuously, all the same.
In his novel, younger brother Henry gave us ten unbroken pages of it, the vivacious flow of Isabel’s thoughts. And he did so eight years before his brother coined the term for the cerebral behavior Henry’s narrative strives to mimic.
Again, a quick bit of plot. As respite, as escape, from her wretched days, Isabel has taken to spending hours in long drives through Rome and the surrounding countryside, often in the company of Pansy, now her stepdaughter, whom she loves. One late afternoon, they return from such a drive to their palazzo—which James names Roccanera, or Black Rock, and how’s that for a bit of dark symbolism?—where Isabel surprises Osmond and Madame Merle in conversation. What startles Isabel on entering the room is that the two of them are almost palpably united in a moment of relaxed conversational silence, musing wordlessly “with the freedom of old friends.”37 Furthermore, she finds Madame Merle standing, while Osmond is sitting, which is of course an unbreachable violation of social decorum. She might as well have caught the two of them in bed. It all unsettles her considerably—and flusters Madame Merle and Osmond as well—to have walked in on her husband and his old friend so “unconsciously and familiarly associated.”38 It intimates to Isabel a deeper, more secretly entwined history that has grown into something comfortably conspiring. Conspiring about what, this she cannot imagine.
Isabel’s moment of discovery is obviously essential to the novel’s plot—plot in every sense—and even more for the psychological use James makes of it. Before he places Isabel by the fire to think through the night, he must create a series of incidents and conversations that will put her in a fittingly uneasy mood, one that will persuasively lead to her long hours of troubled, uninterrupted review. If we think of our characters’ moods as a kind of formative soil from which their thoughts and feelings and actions bloom, we see that it’s fundamental to give them a mood that makes sense for the internal and external behavior that results.
The domestic difficulty of the moment at Roccanera centers on what has become a competition for Pansy’s hand. We know of Rosier’s besotted desire, but in addition there is now Lord Warburton, the very same lord Isabel rejected a few years back. He has resurfaced, he has had his head turned by Pansy, and Osmond is venally eager to have his daughter be Warburton’s bride. The idea of her marrying into English nobility is the next best thing to his having been born into it himself. (As Osmond sees it, the fact that he was not represents a cosmic slight he has resented all his life.) In fact, he is so eager that he asks Isabel to help.
“It seems [Warburton’s] been attentive,” Osmond says. “Isn’t that what you call it?”39 And Isabel replies that she doesn’t “call it anything. I’ve waited for you to give it a name.”40 Shortly after, Osmond asks her if she’s “trying to quarrel”41 with him. And she answers that she’s merely, “trying to live in peace… I’ve determined never to be angry again.”42 “That’s an excellent resolve,” Osmond says. “Your temper isn’t good.”43
As an aside, it is one of James’s frequent techniques of craft to create scenes or exchanges that are near replicas, with a single telling difference between them. Comparing the two provides a way of measuring a change in the characters’ thinking or feelings, and therefore a change in the relationship they are part of. He creates such scenes several times in Portrait and here is perhaps the best example of one. Osmond’s comment about Isabel’s temper not being good invites the reader to remember something he said to her that night in the garishly decorated Roman hotel lobby just the moment before he confessed his love for her.
“I’m horrid when I’m tired,”44 Isabel said to him in the course of their affectionate conversation that earlier night. “I don’t believe that,” Osmond said as he prepared to deliver his solemn confession of love. “You’re angry sometimes—that I can believe, though I’ve never seen it. But I’m sure you’re never ‘cross’.”45 Isabel asks, “Not even when I lose my temper?”46 And to this Osmond replies, “You don’t lose it—you find it, and that must be beautiful. They must be great moments to see.”47
On this second later night, Osmond goes on to complain that Isabel has not been forceful in urging Warburton to propose to Pansy: “You must have a great deal of influence with him. The moment you really wish [him to ask for Pansy’s hand] you can bring him to the point.”48 A moment later he asks her to “remember how much I count on you.” There’s a pause, and then he “stroll[s] out of the room.”49
Michael Gorra says it wonderfully in his book. He writes that Isabel realizes here that her husband has just asked her “to flirt—but that puts it too mildly. He wants her to use her sexual hold on Warburton as a means to her stepdaughter’s marriage.” Which is to say, “He’s pimping her, and she knows it.”50
Might that not be more than sufficient cause for a mood of melancholy, and a night of solitary, dimly candle-lit brooding?
It would benefit any writer to read this chapter and numerically chart the progress of Isabel’s mind through her night. When I did, I recorded twenty-seven discrete items of thought or impression or memory or discovery flowing one to the next, a highly instructive model of meditative chronology, one instance yielding with a kind of inevitable logic to the next and the next and so on.
The Figurative Connected to the Figurative Connected to the Literal
It is intriguing to note that Isabel’s long rumination is almost entirely devoid of concrete, scenic recollections. In constructing her uninterrupted flow of consciousness, James rejected what he frequently described as “the solidity of specification” in favor of a generalized, unspecific, figurative vocabulary. I quote extensively from the chapter to italicize the point: Isabel and Osmond’s relationship is now “anchored by the quality of a deep mutual mistrust”51 …“A gulf had opened between them”52 …She had found “the infinite vista of a multiplied life to be a dark, narrow alley with a dead wall at the end”53 …after their happy first year, it was “as if Osmond had put the lights out one by one”54 …at the start she had had only half his nature, “as one saw the disk of the moon when it was partly masked by the shadow of the earth. She saw the whole moon now. She’d mistaken a part for the whole.”55 …He had been “like a skeptical voyager strolling on the beach while he waited for the tide, looking seaward yet not putting to sea… She would launch his boat for him.”56 …“his egotism lay hidden like a serpent in a bank of flowers.”57 …“Her real offense was to have a mind at all. Her mind was to be his—attached to his own like a small garden plot to a deer park.”58 And on and on.
No one believed more than James that narrative should be constructed of concrete, grounded scenes. But here he did something else. Or did and did not do something else. For while the chapter relies on figurative language, the figures themselves tend to be connected to what they are referring to by a quite particular strategy of grounding them. For they almost all are anchored to a previously established and highly memorable metaphor. As an example, Isabel’s mind in this chapter makes frequent use of metaphors having to do with houses, rooms; in effect, splendid architectural dungeons. She had not realized how much Osmond despised everything about her, including her abundance of ideas, until she figuratively had followed him into “the mansion of his own habitation.”59 Which she discovered to be a “house of darkness, a house of dumbness, a house of suffocation.”60 Followed him into the mansion of his own habitation. An attentive reader will surely connect this figurative phrase to James’s memorable description of Isabel’s first visit to Osmond, at his hill-top apartment in Florence, where the building’s façade was not a face but a mask, and where it seemed a place that was inviting to enter, but once inside made one feel it was impossible to find one’s way out again.
In other words, the phrase “a mansion of his own habitation,” which figuratively represents the incarcerating power of Osmond’s personality in their marriage, is anchored to a first, 200 pages earlier. So, instead of figurative language being directly tied to the tangible, temporal world, as it conventionally is, Isabel’s night of thought is filled with figurative language referring to earlier figurative language (the mask-like façade, the inescapable maze) which James employed to convey the actual physical “mansion of his own habitation”—Osmond’s Florentine apartment. The chain of connection is thus: the figurative referring to the figurative that refers to the literal. And the resulting effect is a kind of paradoxical “anchored floating” of thoughts and memories and emotions that are not quite solidly grounded in the literal, but are not without pattern and not untethered either.
In the midst of all this figurative flow, however, Isabel does have one literal recollection. It comes near the end of her night when she recalls the first “bell that was to ring up the curtain upon the real drama of their life. It was the day he told her she had too many ideas and she must get rid of them.”60 At last, a particular moment, grounded in a particular day: It was the day he told her. In terms of the novel’s drama, what’s extraordinary here is that we have heard Osmond voice this same complaint about Isabel to Madame Merle, before his marriage, when he was citing Isabel’s only flaw. More extraordinary still, again in dramatic terms, he has subsequently said it word for word to Isabel herself, not once but twice—before they married, when she laughed away what she heard as a loving teasing, a silly protest; and after, when she realizes he means it, and realizes what it means that he means it—that “he hates her.”
Here is the moment of revelation—to the reader, that is; Isabel already knows it—that this entire run of metaphorical narrative builds to. It crystallizes her dilemma, it distills her hideous conundrum, in the most unavoidably plain indictment of language. He hates her. Pure and simple. As powerful as this is in stark dramatic terms, I think it derives a great portion of its impact from the very fact of its literalness, its concrete specificity of emotion, coming as a kind of potent punctuation at the end of a long night of the pointedly metaphorical.
There is one last observation to make about James’s unconventional rendering of his stream-of-consciousness chapter. Readers are accustomed, maybe conditioned, and they certainly were in James’s day, to watching a character emerge from such a lengthy, committed contemplation as Isabel’s with a conclusion drawn, with a determination made. But this doesn’t happen to Isabel. At the end of the night, her review of her life may have helped her to clarify her misery, but she has no clearer sense of what to do about it than when she began, hours before, to trace the history of its grimness with such unflinching concentration. Instead, the chapter’s final reference has her circling all the way back to the disconcerting moment that put her in such an uneasy and thereby fiercely reflective mood—of her husband and Madame Merle, united in their mysterious and intimate sympathy.
With that image returned to her, Isabel stands and heads off to bed, the room now chilly from the fire having died out, dark as pitch from the candles having burned down, a still young, still intelligent, but no longer innocent, no longer presumptuous woman, affronting her destiny. And coming more and more to realize, after her long night, that her destiny is also affronting her.
Douglas Bauer’s books include The Very Air, a novel, and The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on Craft. He is a member of the literature faculty at Bennington College.
- Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1995), p. 7.
- Ibid., p. 8.
- Ibid., p. 9.
- Ibid., p. 160.
- Ibid., p. 162.
- Ibid. p. 260.
- Ibid., p. 263.
- Ibid., p. 270.
- Ibid. p. 271.
- Ibid., p. 277.
- Ibid., p. 303.
- Ibid., p. 283.
- Ibid., p. 290.
- Ibid., p. 293.
- Ibid., p. 296.
- Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel (New York: Liveright, 2012), p. 160.
- James, The Portrait of a Lady (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975), p. 15.
- Ibid., p. 14.
- Gorra, Portrait of a Novel (New York: Liveright, 2012), p. 235.
- James, The Portrait of Lady (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975), p, 343.
- Ibid., p. 364.
- Ibid., p. 351.
- Ibid., p. 263.
- Ibid., p. 354.
- Gorra, Portrait of a Novel (New York: Liveright, 2012), p. 230
- James, The Portrait of a Lady (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975), p. 356
- Ibid., p. 357.
- Ibid., p. 360.
- Ibid, p. 362
- Ibid., p. 360.
- Ibid., p. 359.