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Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Portrait of a Lady: more on time, and more on characters

Last week I wrote about time in The Portrait of a Lady. I've been reading, and thinking more about it. Henry James skips a few things, then comes back to them later. For example, we don't see how Osmond proposes and how Isabel considers it and how she agrees to marry him, only how she defends her own decision, but after a while we're given insight into her "logic" when she accepts Osmond. Or, there's a flash forward- all of a sudden we find Isabel and Osmond 3 years later. However after some time, following her consciousness, we start to have an idea of what has happened over the past 3 years and how they've been doing as a married couple and why it's not a happy marriage though on the surface there seems to be nothing.
This has 2 effects. 1, we don't see things as they happen- we see them in Isabel's recollection, i.e. entirely from her point of view.
2, as I wrote last time, the jumps in time throw us into the middle of events, which makes us react the way the characters react- shocked as Caspar Goodwood is when he hears of the coming marriage, or uncertain about the state of the marriage as Lord Warburton is when he visits the Osmonds after a while. This is like what George Eliot does on the 1st page of Daniel Deronda. She doesn't introduce any character- right away she throws the readers into the middle of a gambling scene, starting with Deronda's musings about Gwendolen. If the story had been told chronically, our perception would have been different, because then we would have known Gwendolen. That beginning forces us to wonder about her and feel curious about her, exactly the same way Deronda does.
Regarding the characters, my feeling now is now a lot more positive than it was 2 days ago. Why? I've been reading the novel in a slightly different way.
Here is an excerpt from James Wood's How Fiction Works:
"... it often seems that James's characters are not especially convincing as independently vivid authorial creations. But what makes them vivid is the force of James's interest in them, his manner of pressing into their clay with his examining fingers: they are sites of human energy; they vibrate with James's anxious concern for them.

[...]

James is really suggesting that he has not yet formed his character, that she is still relatively shapeless, an American emptiness, and that the novel will form her, for good and ill, that Europe will fill in her shape, and that just as these 3 waiting, watching men will also form her, so will we, as readers. [...] And what, James asks, will be the plot that poor Isabel will have written for her? How much will she herself write it, and how much will be written for her by others? And in the end, will we really know what Isabel was like, or will we have merely painted a portrait of a lady?

So the vitality of literary character has less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence and even plain plausibility- let alone likeability- than with a larger, philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character's actions are profoundly important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters. That is how readers retain in their minds a sense of the character 'Isabel Archer', even if they cannot tell you what she is exactly like. We remember her in the way we remember an obscurely significant day: something important has been enacted here."
I have, in some sense, stopped trying to define and describe Isabel. I have definitely stopped measuring her, as a character, by the characters of Tolstoy, Jane Austen or George Eliot. I accept her, you may say, and at the moment it appears to me that the best thing in the novel is the Osmond- Isabel- Warburton- Pansy- Ned Rosier conflict. It is good because James deals with subtleties and captures the nuances of feeling; because it gives depth to Pansy, who hitherto has been a submissive, mindless girl who speaks in a strange way and seems like a doll; because it presents Warburton in a new way with his hopeless devotion and silly attempt; because it, above all, reveals Osmond's character and the state of their marriage, the power game, the conflicts, the misunderstandings, the suspicions, the lack of love, the distance between husband and wife. Then her own mental struggle gives life to Isabel- she thinks, wonders, considers, hesitates, suspects, worries, investigates, debates, convinces others, convinces herself, acts, reacts, steps forward, steps back, wavers, contemplates, fears, doubts, changes her mind, makes a step, defies. In her doubt of Warburton's feelings for Pansy, there is sensitivity or perceptiveness, but there is also some vanity and jealousy, if jealousy is the word for how we feel when the person who has declared their love for us, whom we take for granted, suddenly shows an interest in someone else, even though we don't intend to have a relationship with them. 
Another brilliant thing about The Portrait of a Lady is how James develops the relations between Isabel and Ralph. Look at that scene in chapter 45, when Isabel visits the sick, dying Ralph to ask him about Warburton and Pansy. His sensitivity and understanding. The hopeless distance, the difficulty of straightforwardness, the inability to express sympathy. Her pride. His pain. The brief uncovering of her mask, her brief moment of vulnerability. His inability to break through the walls she has built around herself. That is a beautiful scene. Between them is a great distance because of his love and her pride, and her marriage to Osmond, but they have a closeness, an understanding and sympathy that cannot be found between Isabel and Osmond. It is moving. 
I still don't have a clear, definite idea about Isabel's character, but, even if the portrait is impressionistic, it's no longer my concern. I accept her existence as I accepted Daisy Miller's.

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