Saturday 28 November 2015

Ellipses in The Portrait of a Lady- is James "evading the personally impossible" and "disguising a deficiency"?

Speaking of the ellipses in the narrative of The Portrait of a Lady, Michael Gorra believes that Henry James simply avoids what he can't well describe.
"... A novelist's 'individual technique', in Graham Greene's words, 'is more than anything else a means of evading the personally impossible, of disguising a deficiency'. Lesser writers never recognize their limitations. Many great ones stumble over something a hack might do with ease..."
James isn't interested in courtship, but he needs to marry off his heroine not at the end of the book, but now, he "needs to cover that territory, and will do so without entirely meeting its difficulties".
"... Some of his best early stories- tales like "Madame de Mauves" or "The Last of the Valerii"- depict the drama within marriage, the drama of those who are already locked together. James was also known for his reluctance to end his books with a wedding, and his imagination is persistently drawn to the moment of refusal, to events that don't happen. In his later work he would write about passion with a depth and precision that he could not as a young novelist command, but he would never be comfortable in showing the drama of acceptance. Tolstoy could do that, and Trollope. Not James..."
Earlier, Gorra has written about James's homosexuality, choice of bachelorhood, and relations with certain men.
He's very likely to be right. He's the James expert- who am I to contradict him? So far I have only read The Portrait of a Lady and a collection of 4 stories. 
What I think is that, even though Gorra can be right, whilst reading the novel I didn't think that James was staying out of an unknown, unfamiliar territory. He makes a choice, and it works. Of course, other writers tackle it differently- we have seen George Eliot do it; we can imagine how Tolstoy would do it. But James makes his choice, and I feel it's the way things should be done. Its effects become its justifications (without making one feel there have to be justifications). 

1 comment:

  1. Far be it from me to argue against a Jamesian such as Gorra, but it does seem to me that James, throughout his career, made judgements on what to depict directly and what not to depict directly based not on his own capabilities, but on what he, as an artist, feels best aids the story. In The Wings of the Dove, for instance, the scene that, one would have thought, would form the dramatic climax – the last meeting between Milly Theale and Merton Densher – takes place offstage. This is not because James felt he couldn’t depict such a scene, but because he felt the story would have a greater impact if the reader were left to imagine the scene for themselves. Instead, James achieves his denouement in the final meetings between Merton Densher and Kate Croy.

    Reading The Portrait of a Lady, this is precisely what I find fascinating – James’ decisions on what to depict directly, and what *not* to depict directly, and why he makes these decisions. Isabel’s rejections of Caspar Goodwood and of Lord Warburton are shown directly: if her acceptance of Osmond *isn’t* shown directly, it is because james wants to retain a certain mystery on this point. We aren’t supposed to know *precisely* why Isabel accepts Osmond, and the reason, I think, is that Isabel’s own motives are not precisely defined. In the scenes leading up to the acceptance, James gives us as much of Isabel’s thoughts as Isabel herself is aware of: there is n going further. I suspect that Isabel’s true reasons for accepting Osmond are unclear even to herself: the best James can do is to hint at it. It’s as if the truth were covered with a veil, and all James can do is to describe the shape the veil takes, hinting at what may lie underneath. And this seems to me in many ways the essence of James’ art - the depiction of that which cannot directly be depicted through teh most painstaking of indirections.


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