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May 09, 2006

David Womersley on liberty and responsibility in Henry James: The Portrait of a Lady - Henry James

Posted by David Womersley

The Portrait of a Lady
by Henry James
first published in 1881
available in Oxford World Classics
ed. Nicola Bradbury. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995
Paperback, £4.99

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - examines the central concerns of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, namely questions about liberty and responsibility.

The great novel of Henry James's "middle" period, The Portrait of a Lady (1881), is a work which installs at the centre of its concerns a set of crucial questions about liberty and responsibility: what are they, what supports them, and what stifles them? The novel itself is set in the aftermath of great political and military ferment. When Isabel goes to Paris with her aunt, she is curious to see "the new Republic" (p. 226): this locates the beginning of the novel in the very early 1870s, and we are told towards the end that the action of the novel occupies just over six years.

The years 1870-77 saw, in England, the aftermath of the passage of the Third Reform Bill (glancingly introduced into the novel via the political radicalism of Lord Warburton [p. 88]), in France the formation of the Third Republic after the débacle of Sedan, and in America the rippling consequences of the Civil War. All of these momentous events in public life cast a shadow over this novel, of which the action occurs variously in America, England and continental Europe.

But political liberty and public responsibility, although they have their place in The Portrait of a Lady, are only the backdrop for the kind of liberty and responsibility which truly engages James's imagination. This is the moral liberty and the moral responsibility of cultivated, but not always fully-percipient individuals, existing in an environment of high material luxury which is yet not proof against a certain ethical savagery.

In the preface to the New York edition, James says that the (p. 10):

single small corner-stone [of his novel was the] conception of a certain young woman affronting her destiny.
That the imaginative core of the novel should be an encounter between fate and will illustrates at once how central to it will be questions of freedom, but James's formulation also raises other, more philosophical, questions about destiny and fate. One can affront one's destiny, in the sense of defying it. But does it therefore make sense to suggest, as the novel's heroine Isabel Archer does to her devoted but unsuccessful suitor, Caspar Goodwood, that one can choose one's destiny? (pp. 182-83)
"I'm not in my first youth – I can do what I choose – I belong quite to the independent class. I've neither father nor mother; I'm poor and of a serious disposition; I'm not pretty. I therefore am not bound to be timid and conventional; indeed, I can't afford such luxuries. Besides, I try to judge things for myself; to judge wrong, I think, is more honourable than not to judge at all. I don't wish to be a mere sheep in the flock; I wish to choose my fate and know something about human affairs beyond what other people think it compatible with propriety to tell me."
This passage needs to be read in conjunction with an earlier exchange, in which Isabel is once more rejecting a suitor, this time Lord Warburton. Warburton has pressed Isabel to tell him her reason for rejecting him (p. 150):
"You don't seem to have any reason, and that gives me a sense of injustice."
In spite of her reluctance, Isabel eventually agrees to explain herself (pp. 151-52):
"That reason that I wouldn't tell you – I'll tell it you after all. It's that I can't escape my fate."

"Your fate?"

"I should try to escape it if I were to marry you."

"I don't understand. Why should not that be your fate as well as anything else?"

"Because it's not," said Isabel femininely. "I know it's not. It's not my fate to give up – I know it can't be."

These paired passages shed light on the moral paradox which James enshrines in the person of Isabel: namely, how it can be that a person may at the same time be bound and yet act freely, or make a free choice to follow a pre-destined path? It is for this reason that, at the central moment of the novel, when Gilbert Osmond, who will court Isabel and eventually ensnare her in a marriage which reduces (p. 456)
the infinite vista of a multiplied life [to] a dark, narrow alley with a dead wall at the end,
declares himself to be "absolutely in love" with her, Isabel's response is revealingly undecided (p. 335):
The tears came into her eyes: this time they obeyed the sharpness of the pang that suggested to her somehow the slipping of a fine bolt – backward, forward, she couldn't have said which.
Backward, forward: everything hangs on this ambiguity of direction. Will her marriage be an emancipation or an imprisonment? It turns out to be the latter. But that eventual fact is less interesting and less important than the consideration that, at the very moment of action, the direction of travel should be so unclear.

At the very end of the novel, when Isabel has defied Osmond to return to England to see her dying cousin, Ralph Touchett, she has another encounter with Caspar Goodwood. Goodwood has learned of her unhappy marriage, and urges her to abandon Osmond for him. She refuses, and provokes a dramatic response (pp. 627-28):

He glared at her a moment through the dusk, and the next instant she felt his arms about her and his lips on her own lips. His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession. She had heard of those wrecked and under water following a train of images before they sink. But when darkness returned she was free. .... She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.
This emphasis on freedom, knowledge and direction is the summation of themes which have run through the novel from the outset. (In the preface James refers to the "boundless freedom" of the novelist, while at the same time dwelling minutely on the heavy responsibility of his imagination. There is consequently a parallelism between the subject-matter of the novel and James's understanding of his own métier.) But this does not translate into any shallow freedom of action, for at the end of the novel Isabel returns to Rome, and – so we assume – to her marriage with Osmond. James is encouraging us to think of a deeper kind of liberty, which is not necessarily correlated with the mere following of inclination or the indulgence of desire.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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your ideas about this excellent novel are absolutely true.you helped me a lot by oferring me a series of quotes.thank you very much.thanks to you now i'm sure i'll pass my exam

Posted by: mary at July 5, 2006 10:43 AM
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