Friday, 30 October 2015

Metaphors in The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady has interesting and intriguing metaphors. Generally the metaphors and images and associations are not "random"- they recur and recur throughout the novel. Most interesting are the architectural metaphors all over the place.
In 1 of the 1st chapters, Henry James describes the Touchetts' house:
"A beautiful collie dog lay upon the grass near his chair, watching the master's face almost as tenderly as the master took in the still more magisterial physiognomy of the house; and a little bristling, bustling terrier bestowed a desultory attendance upon the other gentlemen."
Later he describes a villa, where we see Osmond and Pansy for the 1st time:
"The house had a front upon a little grassy, empty, rural piazza which occupied a part of the hill-top; and this front, pierced with a few windows in irregular relations and furnished with a stone bench lengthily adjusted to the base of the structure and useful as a lounging-place to one or two persons wearing more or less of that air of undervalued merit which in Italy, for some reason or other, always gracefully invests any one who confidently assumes a perfectly passive attitude—this antique, solid, weather-worn, yet imposing front had a somewhat incommunicative character. It was the 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..."
Houses are like souls, and souls are like houses. 
Look at this line about Isabel:
"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; and at important moments, when she would have been thankful to make use of her judgement alone, she paid the penalty of having given undue encouragement to the faculty of seeing without judging."
She thinks of Ralph:
"... Isabel often found herself irritated by this perpetual fiddling; she would have liked to pass through the ante-room, as her cousin called it, and enter the private apartments. It mattered little that he had assured her they were a very dismal place; she would have been glad to undertake to sweep them and set them in order."
He thinks of her:
"His cousin was a very brilliant girl, who would take, as he said, a good deal of knowing; but she needed the knowing, and his attitude with regard to her, though it was contemplative and critical, was not judicial. He surveyed the edifice from the outside and admired it greatly; he looked in at the windows and received an impression of proportions equally fair. But he felt that he saw it only by glimpses and that he had not yet stood under the roof. The door was fastened, and though he had keys in his pocket he had a conviction that none of them would fit."
"... She would keep the gate ajar and open a parley; she would certainly not allow number three to come in..." 
Architectural metaphors are everywhere- there is one even when Osmond speaks of Goodwood: 
"... It would have been an excellent thing, like living under some tall belfry which would strike all the hours and make a queer vibration in the upper air. He declared he liked to talk with the great Goodwood; it wasn't easy at first, you had to climb up an interminable steep staircase up to the top of the tower; but when you got there you had a big view and felt a little fresh breeze..." 
In Osmond's case, he and his house are one. For example, Isabel ponders about him: 
"... She had taken all the first steps in the purest confidence, and then she had suddenly found the infinite vista of a multiplied life to be a dark, narrow alley with a dead wall at the end..." 
"She had not been mistaken about the beauty of his mind; she knew that organ perfectly now. She had lived with it, she had lived in it almost—it appeared to have become her habitation." 
The association becomes more prominent: 
"She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation. Osmond's beautiful mind gave it neither light nor air; Osmond's beautiful mind indeed seemed to peep down from a small high window and mock at her." 
James's also fond of garden metaphors: 
"... Her nature had, in her conceit, a certain garden-like quality, a suggestion of perfume and murmuring boughs, of shady bowers and lengthening vistas, which made her feel that introspection was, after all, an exercise in the open air, and that a visit to the recesses of one's spirit was harmless when one returned from it with a lapful of roses. But she was often reminded that there were other gardens in the world than those of her remarkable soul, and that there were moreover a great many places which were not gardens at all—only dusky pestiferous tracts, planted thick with ugliness and misery..."
This garden image is used later: 
"Her mind was to be his—attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park." 
Pansy is a flower. Isn't Rosier, too?
James uses the house vs soul comparison as the central, overarching principle for the whole novel, which unites everything. Then he creates individual images and associations for the characters. James, who I generally don't think is a visual writer, describes Osmond's sister: 
"The Countess Gemini simply nodded without getting up: Isabel could see she was a woman of high fashion. She was thin and dark and not at all pretty, having features that suggested some tropical bird—a long beak-like nose, small, quickly-moving eyes and a mouth and chin that receded extremely. Her expression, however, thanks to various intensities of emphasis and wonder, of horror and joy, was not inhuman, and, as regards her appearance, it was plain she understood herself and made the most of her points. Her attire, voluminous and delicate, bristling with elegance, had the look of shimmering plumage, and her attitudes were as light and sudden as those of a creature who perched upon twigs."
I like that a lot. Countess Gemini is a bird. Madame Merle, who is in some ways her foil, is also a bird. "Merle" is French for blackbird and idiomatically "un fin merle" means a deep or cunning person.
Our heroine Isabel Archer is a ship. Of her, Ralph says to his father:
"I should like to put a little wind in her sails."
Later he says:
"She has started on an exploring expedition, and I don't think she'll change her course, at the outset, at a signal from Gilbert Osmond. She may have slackened speed for an hour, but before we know it she'll be steaming away again." 
Henrietta Stackpole is strongly identified as a newspaper-woman.
"... She rustled, she shimmered, in fresh, dove-coloured draperies, and Ralph saw at a glance that she was as crisp and new and comprehensive as a first issue before the folding. From top to toe she had probably no misprint. She spoke in a clear, high voice—a voice not rich but loud; yet after she had taken her place with her companions in Mr. Touchett's carriage she struck him as not all in the large type, the type of horrid "headings," that he had expected..."
Most of the time she's described as exploring, observing and recording things for her newspaper, making notes, writing articles, reading news, selecting and sending tracts... The images of her doing things for or related to newspapers stick to her and define her the same way Pansy's constantly linked to the image of making tea. When Countess Gemini meets Henrietta:
"It was as impossible to imagine her ever vaguely sighing as to imagine a letter posted without its address."
And when Osmond speaks badly of her, he says:
"Do you know what she reminds me of? Of a new steel pen—the most odious thing in nature. She talks as a steel pen writes; aren't her letters, by the way, on ruled paper? She thinks and moves and walks and looks exactly as she talks."
Another characteristic in Henrietta that is often stressed is her modernity. Modern woman. Modern type. Look at this simile:
"Her remarkably open eyes, lighted like great glazed railway-stations, had put up no shutters..."
She is (the negative side of) modernity as Osmond is (the bad things about) traditions. This man, on his part, is strongly identified as a collector. Not an artist, though he paints, but a collector. Paintings, sculptures, coins, medals, ceramics, fine stuff. He's not the only art collector in The Portrait of a Lady, but it's most emphasised in his characterisation. He sees his wife as nothing but another object, a part of his collection. 
We should note, however, that Edward Rosier and Ralph Touchett also collect, and their attitudes towards their objects extend into their relationships- if the former loves a woman as pure, small, delicate and vulnerable as his china, the latter, kind and generous as he is, loves Isabel but conceals his feelings (until later) and only looks at her and wants to shape her as though she's a painting. Ralph is kind, Osmond is a villain; Ralph gives Isabel money and therefore freedom, Osmond takes both from her; the contrast is clear, but in a sense they have 1 thing in common- both forget that Isabel's a human being.
I'm enjoying the novel now a lot more than I earlier did. 


Here are Tom's posts about Henry James's book:

1 comment:

  1. Yes, Di, I think representations of "place" -- in its various descriptions and tropes -- are very interesting ways of reading and appreciating Henry James; in fact, I prefer his attention to "place" over his attention to character and plot.


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