Henry James :”The Portrait of a Lady ” Essay Example
Henry James :”The Portrait of a Lady ” Essay Example

Henry James :”The Portrait of a Lady ” Essay Example

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I will show how James build the Identity of Isabel through "The Portrait of a Lady "and how by doing that, he announces at the same time her mental death. James begins his novel with a situation and a character. He creates a situation ,and then he will place his characters in it and observes what will happen when a character is confronted with a new situation. It is the case of Isabel in Gardencourt and in Osmond's garden.. The two gardens described by James ;Gardencourt and Osmond 's garden (or Hill-top) illustrate two types of garden : one is fertile, the other sterile.

Gardencourt is described as a loving ,colourful and beautiful place. It is a symbol of the Touchett's who are open and listening people. In Gardencourt nature is described as well arranged and fertile. In this garden many flowers an


d seeds are growing . In Gardencourt there is a feeling of privacy ,"The front of the house overlooking that portion of the lawn was not the entrance-front; this was in quite another quarter. Privacy here reigned supreme" (p. 18). As soon as she arrived in Gardencourt ,Isabel is welcomed by the dog of the Touchetts. It gives right away a pleasant feeling to the reader .

Gardencourt is described in positive term compared to Osmond's house. Each house is personified. For instance, Gardencourt has "A long gabled front of redbrick, with the complexion of which time and the weather had played all sorts of pictorial tricks. "(p. 20) This house is painted in red ,the colour of life and dynamism. Gardencourt personality is lively, dynamic and idyllic. Gardencourt fertile, well-arranged garden welcomes Isabel in

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the same way that the family welcomes her.

On the contrary, Hill-top's garden is a disorganised : it is a "narrow parcel where roses grow up in a disorganised manner"(p. 17) so we already have a feeling of confinement and confusion . The garden of Osmond is closed to the world, separated by a wall. Osmond's house is "on the top of a hill. " (p. 217) . Also in his house the windows are closed to the world ,"But their function seemed less to offer communication to the world than to defy the world to look in. "(p. 196. ) 1. The place, like it's owner ,is far away from society. James implies a strong correlation between a person's character and the environment of his home. The way that leads to Hill-top reaches a "crooked" place, meaning that it is not easy to reach Hill-top.

Our first impression of Osmond's house is threatening . Also the house of Osmond seems prison-like to Isabel. When she came for the first time, she think " It will require a force of will for a person to get out "(p. 197) . When Osmond and Isabel walk in the garden Isabel feels confined. The two gardens could represent two opposites sides : paradise and hell. Isabel compares Osmond to the serpent of the garden of Eden. "His egotism lay hidden like a serpent in a Bank of flowers. " (p. 360) . The serpent is the initiator of evil in the bible. here it is Osmond who is the devilish person .

Another contrast is that "Gardencourt stood upon a low hill, above the river". (p. 18) so, it is

easily reachable . There is a river close by, and it is a fertile garden ,so it might represent paradise. The fact that Isabel described Gardencourt as a " sacred " place underlines this idea. Thus, James gives us many hints ,of what might happen to Isabel if she chooses the environment that confines her. It is as if Isabel chooses between freedom and prison, heaven and hell, truth and duplicity. Then James enlarges the landscape and focuses on Osmond's villa which is personified She seems to wear a mask like its owner .

This antique, solid weather-worn, yet imposing front had a somewhat incommunicative character. It was a mask, not the face of the house. It had heavy lids, but no eyes; the house in reality looked another way - looked off behind, into splendid openness and the range of the afternoon light (p. 195) It is interesting to see that the motif of the duplicity and of the mask present in Hill-top ,is absent in Gardencourt . The motif of the duplicity announces us that there is a hidden face in Osmond. The fact that Osmond is wearing a mask tells the reader that he must hide something .

Maybe there is a good and bad part in his person . Not only the person is threatening but also Osmond's villa and the entire city of Rome that is described as a tragic place. In the portrait of the lady James described Rome as a place of ruins ,symbolising decadence and sadness. Also in the film Rome is associated with images of death ,such as the couple in the sarcophage.. We can see that from

the first chapter, the tone is set. Every incident functions to tell us more about a character or a situation. By the description of the environment James prepares us for the drama to come.

After setting the stage ,James examines his character showing again a discomfort. One can compares Isabel to a flower. Like the flower that needs water and sun to grow, Isabel needs love and attention to bloom. In Gardencourt Isabel can grow because she is nurtured by loving parents and by her many suitors. She lives in a fertile garden where she can grow up easily. She has the food to develop her personality, one gives her the money to realise her wishes. She is blooming . Also her mind is blooming and her overactive imagination reflects that.

But her highest quality; like her imagination ,also became her downfall. For example as a result of her overactive imagination, Isabel is able to construct a false image of Osmond that she comes to believe in ,ignoring Osmond's real character. Her tragedy is in her mistaken judgement of Mrs Merle and Osmond . Another example is Isabel's desire for complete independence that will cause her to marry Osmond. Ralph gave her inheritance in order to provide Isabel the opportunity to develop to her fullest capacity. But in doing that , it caused her to become the prisoner of Osmond.

In her determination to follow only her own evaluation, she refuses to listen to her many friends who cautioned her against such a marriage. Thus ,we see that Isabel was capable of great potential and of great development. She had a large capacity for growth and for life,

but she will not find the right person that unable her to develop her potential, and she will take the wrong decision. The reader can wonder why Isabel does not choose the fertile garden where plants can grow freely, but the narrow parcel where brambles grow everywhere, symbolising Osmond's destructive power.

James builds the portrait of Isabel through the relationships she has with other people. This construction is hard. Isabel who is not a rose with prickles to protect her toward predators will be soon attack by the brambles that will suffocate her. Like the ivy that takes the sap of trees to survive , many characters in James's book feed themselves with Isabel. The idea of vampirism is recurrent in the book . Each character takes something from Isabel. From the first chapter Isabel is an object of seduction. The other characters project on her their ambition and desires.

Each one has a different goal. Mrs. Merle offers Isabel in sacrifice to Osmond. Osmond is like a vampire who takes Isabel's blood, her energy, her money. Ralph takes from Isabel the substance that is necessary for him to survive. The substance (the entertainment from observation) is ended by his death. Isabel is like his substantial food because she is for him "like a thick cake a fond old nurse might have slipped into his first school outfit. " (p. 45). Ralph is from chapter one virtually dead, but extend his life just to watch her. The narrator explains us what kept Ralph alive.

What kept Ralph alive was simply the fact that he had not yet seen enough of the person in the world in whom he

was most interested : he was not yet satisfied. There was more to come; he couldn't make up his mind , This was only the first act of the drama, and he was determined to sit out the performance. (p. 322) Osmond also takes his substance from Isabel. She fulfils his ambition and his narcissism. Isabel compares him to a spider ,and herself to an insect caught up in Osmond's web "The resolution with which she had entered the room found itself caught in a mesh of fine threads" (p. 46). Osmond believes he has caught his prey and nourishes himself with the "essence " of Isabel. "I used to have morbid, sterile, hatful fits of hunger, of desire. Now I am really satisfied. " (p. 297) . The spider takes his victims into its web,symbolising Osmond's destructive power . It is a threatening image. When Isabel will be married she will be caught into Osmond's web. At the end of the book Isabel is exhausted, the beautiful flowers she was at the beginning begins to blight. She cannot find the place to grow in Osmond's garden and will vanish.

Exhaustion is another theme underlines in the book. In the first chapter ,James states that "Isabel is already tired when she arrived in Gardencourt"(p. 10). This passage can be read as the "mise en abyme "of all the life of Isabel and gives us a hint of what will happen to her at the end when Isabel will recognise the loss of her strengths. In chapter one ,Daniel Touchett and Lord Warburton are talking about the destruction of the actual society. They say that women are

the only vital elements in this ruined society and that only an interested woman can help a blazed gentleman.

The tone is set. Isabel will nourish by her energy the vanishing society of Garden court. For James,Isabel represents the renewal (America)in the destroyed society(England). But she will not be strong enough and will be exhausted at the end. An image that shows her exhaustion is the one of the door shutted, like if she is in prison. "The tears came into her eyes : this time 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" (p. 263)2. Another image that shows her exhaustion is the one of the tunnel.

At the end of the book her destiny is compared to a long and dark tunnel that reaches a wall. She had suddenly found the infinite vista of an multiplied life to be a dark, narrow alley with a dead wall at he end". (356) Without leaving out the idea of a renewal. "It could not be that she was to live only to suffer; she was still young, after all, and a great many things might happen to her yet. (466). The tunnel might applied for the difficulties and sufferings of Isabel's life . Here the tunnel reaches a wall symbolising her state of prisoner. Osmond will take away of her joyfulness and want to undermine her individuality.

He feels that her wife must conform to his every wish and desire, he wants a wife who obeys him with perfect obedience. In attempting to do so , he need to break Isabel's independent

spirit and her capacities. At the end ,Isabel looses her essence, her vitality, her vivacity. When Ralph sees her again she seems to wear a mask showing the change of Isabel's identity. She becomes another person who has to hide her emotions . It is why Ralph has the impression to see that she is wearing a mask . We have seen how Isabel's lifefulness changes little by little in a mental death through the process of vampirism and exhaustion.

We can wonder why Isabel does not react, escape or fight . but James seems to show us that his heroin is in a trap. In that sense he underlines the women condition in the Nineteen century. Or maybe he shows us that she does not understand England and its particular customs because she comes from america. As she do not see correctly,she is not able to react properly in the environnement. Another idea suggested by James is that Isabel has some difficulties to perceive correctly the world around her because she is clouded by her imagination. There is a movement from innocence to experiences or from romanticism to realism.

At the beginning ,Isabel is innocent. She is fascinated by everything , thirsty for knowledge and wants to be as happy as possible. She is very optimistic and full of life. James portraits a girl who is in search of truth about the world ,about herself and others. At the beginning she wonders what she is meant to do and to whom she belongs . She has many suitors but she is afraid of losing her independence by getting married.

James shows us a character who is building

his identity. At the beginning Isabel is portrayed as a dreamer and thoughtful girl with free imagination "She lost herself in a maze of visions. " (p. 93)She is clouded by her readings and " determined not to be hollow"(p. 55) . She considers imagination like a source of knowledge but she forgets that it must be added with a critic observation of human nature. She loves reading books and is very influenced by it. Daniel Touchett warned her to be careful of fictive stories. "There is no romance here but what you may have brought with you (p. 51)",but she does not listen. Even James seems not to understand his heroin. Her imaginations seems ridiculous to him. "Her imagination was by habit ridiculously active; when the door was not open it jumped out of the window.

She was not accustomed indeed to keep it behind bolts "(p. 39). She does not know how to see the life, she has too much imagination". Seeing often in the things she looked at a great deal more than was there" (p. 245). James uses the technique of stream of consciousness to show us what Isabel thinks and how she is wrong in her judgement. The discrepancy between reality and her illusions show the reader there is something wrong in her way of thinking. She is always impressed by the Romanesque of the events. After the first evening spent with Warburton , she imagines him living in "a castle in a legend" (p. 5) , transforming reality to her desires.

Warburton is the prince of her dreams. As Isabel's mind is clouded by her imagination ,she is not able to

see correctly. The narrator insists on the verb "to perceive" as a contrast between blindness and the idea of seeing. James wants to show his reader that the way of perceiving is a process that one should build by our experiences in life. At the beginning for Isabel "seeing" means imagine. At the end Isabel has growed up. She is no longer blind but can see the truth. Gradually ,Isabel loses her illusion. The book can be read as an apprenticeships of vision.

At the beginning Isabel is blind but James seems to say that she likes to be blind "With all her love of knowledge she had a natural shrinking from raising curtains and looking into unlighted corners "(p. 173). Isabel is in world of confusion because she is clouded by her imagination. In the film ,Jane Campion shows Isabel's reflections in a window to suggest the confusion of her mind ,or maybe to show that one image is real and the other, the reflected image, is the one created by Isabel. As her feeling toward Osmond's increased ,Isabel becomes more and more the hostage of images.

James will at this moment use a lot of words relating to visual field. Because she is dazzled by the physical attraction Osmond exercised and cannot see behind the appearances. She had a wrong idea of Osmond because of her imagination He told her that he had lived a dull life, but Isabel's imagination creates for him a very interesting life. In her imagination, she filled in the vacant spots and saw him as a much interesting person than he actually was "but her imagination supplied the human element

which she was sure had not been wanting"(p. 228).

Isabel's imagination enables her to overlook the obvious defects of osmond;his arrogance,his narcissism,his cruelty . She creates her own idyllic picture of him. The tragic turning point in her life is when she will realise who he really is and then will realise what she has became "an object in the collection of a art collector" ,a portrait. She becomes a representation in a metatextual way. When Ralph sees her again at the end, Isabel is no more a lively person, but becomes a portrait that one admire. If she wore a mask it completely covered her.

There was something fixed and mechanical in the serenity painted on it; this was not an expression, Ralph said it was a representation, it was even an advertisement. Ralph, in all this, recognised the hand of the master. (p. 330) . The free keen girl had become quite another person; what he saw was the fine lady who was supposed to represent something. (p. 331) She has no more expression, she is wearing a mask showing the idea of lifeless. At the end of the book Isabel has lost her innocence and illusions. After many delusions Isabel lost her lifefullness ,but is much aware of how the world works .

So it is difficult to say if it is a happy or a bad ending. In chapter 42, James shows us Isabel 's psychological state and examines Isabel thoughts as she realises her situation and comes to grips with it. Chapter 42 is the crucial moment where Isabel clarified her mind. Yet she is more lucid and mature. She is aware of

the mistakes she made and analyses her past. She is a lady now, at the beginning she was a nai?? ve girl. James shows us an heroin full of imagination set on the path of self-knowledge. The passage from illusion to reality can be seen as a passage from light to darkness.

James plays with the symbol of darkness and light. In the dictionary of symbols light often occurs in contrast to darkness which represents the failure to recognise, spiritual dullness or death. The light plays an important role in the development of Isabel . Isabel's portrait changes through out the book as the light changes. The light is associated with Ralph who has a positive effect "a lamp in the darkness" on Isabel. He is undoubtedly a positive figure in her life, capable of making her forget her miserable state. " On the contrary ,Osmond is associated with darkness "It was as if Osmond had put the lights out one by one" (p. 56). Darkness is associated with Isabel's unhappiness after her "great mistake", i. e. , her marriage to a man who does not love her and makes her suffer. James is also describing the places often in shadow ,or at sunset to gives its reader an uncomfortable feeling "The great enclosure was half in shadow; the western sun brought out the pale red tone of the great blocks of travertine . the latent colour that is the only living element in the immense ruin. " (p. 438) . Another important point is that the reading can be a symbol of light for James. When married Isabel does not read anymore but she embroiders.


is the occupation of a submissive woman. The discovery of her own errors have exhausted Isabel and Isabel has no more the energy to read. Also the end can be interpreted in two way : on the one hand Isabel is exhausted from her sufferings she feels empty and older because Osmond takes all of her "essence", but on the other hand she is stronger and more mature by the rough travel. One can analyse her life in a psychological way, like a travel into the inner self. To be able to construct one person's identity it is a hard process. One needs a lot of strengths . It is a moral struggle.

At one point Isabel has reached the heart of darkness. She has plunged into the depths of the self. The ghost might be a symbol of a child past, that should be destroyed to be able to born again in another identity : the one of a mature lady. At the end ,she has discovered some general truth about humankind. Her experiences and her relationships constructed her identity. She might be aware of forces which, she ignored before. She has now a better knowledge of herself. " You must have suffered first, have suffered greatly, gave gained some miserable knowledge. In that way your eyes are opened to it" (p. 2) .

The introspective voyage leads to a spiritual change. The portrait of a lady can be interpreted as a portrait by a lady of herself. Isabel "reborn" into an aware and no longer naive life For this rebirth Isabel chooses to come back to Gardencourt There is like a circular movement in the

book. Isabel comes back at the end to Gardencourt that she considered as "a sacred place "(p. 414) ,and where she feels secure . "There seemed to Isabel in these days something sacred in Gardencourt" . "There is nothing better than this Gardencourt. " (p. 28) James constructs Isabel's personality throughout the book.

A new facade of her personality emerges in each new circumstance. Like the writer who is building up the portrait of his heroin, we ,as reader, have the impression that Isabel becomes more and more confined in her frame. The lady who wants so much to be free,will be the prisonner of her own frame. The movement from light to darkness expresses. this idea . At the beginning "Isabel had a fixed determination to regard the world as a place of brightness, of free expansion, of irresistible action "(p. 54) but at the end ,her world will be transformed in "the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation. " (p. 360).

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