Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady

Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady

"On her long journey from Rome her mind had been given up to vagueness; she was unable to question the future. She performed this journey with sightless eyes and took little pleasure in the countries she traversed, decked out though they were in the richest freshness of spring. Her thoughts followed their course through other countries‹strange-looking, dimly-lighted, pathless lands, in which there was no change of seasons, but only as it seemed, a perpetual dreariness of winter. She had plenty to think about; but it was neither reflexion nor conscious purpose that filled her mind. Disconnected visions passed through it, and sudden dull gleams of memory, of expectation. The past and the future came and went at their will, but she saw them only in fitful images, which rose and fell by a logic of their own."(606)

This passage, from the last chapters of The Portrait of a Lady, strikes me as one of the most brutally sad moments in the entire novel. Here Isabel, who has defied Osmond¹s wishes that she defer to the Œsanctity¹ of their marriage has, with a solemn and ghostly nod to the liberty and independence that has characterized her throughout, come to be beside her cousin Ralph as he dies. What makes the passage so effectively tragic is that in its tone, language and imagery, it picks up on notes that have been sounded again and again from the beginning of the novel; at the same time, however, we cannot fail to register the differences in the workings of our heroine¹s mind as she tries to make sense of what has become of her.

Much of the poignancy of the above-quoted lines comes from the way in which they contrast with James¹ earlier descriptions of Isabel¹s mentality. It is surely part of...

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...he would come back in her weakness..."(607)‹James only too vividly draws the contrast between Isabel¹s initial freedom and her eventual imprisonment within the secretly and malevolently-built structure of her marriage.

It is with one word that James sums up the central tragedy of Isabel¹s story when, fitted with this new, terrible consciousness, she concludes: "The only thing to regret was that Madame Merle had been so‹well, so unimaginable."(607) Once again, James strikes a note that has sounded again and again over the course of our reading. Indeed, imagination is in many ways the novel¹s primary subject, as it is our heroine¹s ruin; by the end of this almost unspeakably cruel and sad story, we can only hope that it will be her redemption and transcendence as well.

Works Cited

James, Henry. A Portrait of a Lady. 1908. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1963.
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