Journeying through the second half of The Portrait of a Lady, I was fascinated by James’s facility in challenging all of my assumptions about Isabel Archer. Each turn of the page launched me into another round of upheaval, revelation, revision. Part 2 is almost like a mirror, casting from each image in Part 1 an identical but opposing view.
Isabel is a study in contradiction, yes. But it’s hardly due to self-interest or ambition. Her hypocrisy stems from a deep responsiveness to the world; she tries to do justice to her sense of truth and decency, which always seems to crumble in her hands. Her “infinite desire that she should never do anything wrong” is her saving grace, and also her ruin. It sets her apart from the unnaturally consistent characters who seek to manipulate her. It makes her human.
If, in Part 1, Isabel is a blank canvas, she is thoroughly transformed in Part 2. With the opening line of Chapter 36 (“In the autumn of 1876″), James casts us into the future, onto the other side of the mirror. This point in the novel marks a clear shift in the narrative. Isabel makes her choice– however freely she may be in making it, if she can be said to make it at all– and the rest of the novel unravels the consequences. It’s this distance, and James’s incredible skill in illuminating the interior workings of the mind, that lends the novel its astounding richness. More importantly, his restraint allows us to become active participants in the plot.
Alongside Isabel, we try to piece together an understanding of the intrigue surrounding her, guessing at Madame Merle’s motivations and Gilbert Osmond’s unfathomable cruelty. We identify with Isabel as she tries to do right by Pansy, her husband, her cousin, and her own sense of honor. Isabel, in turn, identifies with Pansy, more innocent than Isabel ever was, and more dependent upon the decisions of others. As she seizes upon each new possibility, we see our own human desire for something to hold onto. What seemed absurd in Part 1– “never to do anything wrong”– now seems the essence of human desire. The only problem is, it’s impossible.
For me, the most moving segment in the novel comes just after Madame Merle’s “mask” drops in Chapter 49:
Isabel took a drive alone that afternoon; she wished to be far away, under the sky, where she could descend from her carriage and tread upon the daisies. She had long before this taken old Rome into her confidence, for in a world of ruins the ruin of her happiness seemed a less unnatural catastrophe.
This whole section touches me like music, like the low note struck just before the tragic denouement in an opera. It’s the rightness of the note, struck at the right time. The image of the Roman ruins rises in our eyes as “the place where people had suffered,” and we see ourselves there along with Isabel. Who among us has never walked through the “ruin of her own happiness”?
“Ah, they’re part of the comedy. You others are spectators.” There are endless directions in which we could walk from here, in exploring the novel. We could pursue Isabel’s changing ideas of happiness, her conception of what it means to marry, or the ways in which she is treated as just another objet d’art for her husband’s strategic collecting. Isabel bears up remarkably well under the pressure of James’s scrutiny, the novel’s relentless analysis of her mind, effected through the careful development of the other characters. What does Isabel make of all this?
“Do you call it a comedy, Isabel Archer?” Henrietta rather grimly asked.
“The tragedy then if you like. You’re all looking at me; it makes me uncomfortable.”
The effect of tragedy, for me, is that I inevitably resist. This draws me in; I become complicit, involved. I want a happy ending, and yet I am also aware of the profound beauty I would miss if the story were otherwise. Through the mediation of art, we have the chance to probe the depths of emotions, of action and its consequence.
So here’s my final question for you, based, I suppose, on the assumption that The Portrait of a Lady is finally a tragedy. That is, I assume we agree that the novel ends in disaster, and that Isabel herself plays a role in her fall from prosperity and possibility. The question, then, concerns the degree to which she is responsible for her fall. I’m curious how you see it.
Do you believe Isabel Archer is a victim? If so, of whom or what? If you see her as an agent of her own demise, what was her mistake? Does she have a tragic flaw?