Sunday, September 25, 2011

Isabel Archer Confronts Her Destiny

If the 19th Century novel has a dominant theme, it  must be "disappointment."  Over the last couple of days I published excerpts that show us how, variously, Nikolai Rostov and Tertius Lydgate find that the world is a more complicated place than they thought it to be.

Perhaps a more dramatic example is Isabel Archer in Henry James' Portrait of a Lady.  Young, warm-hearted, breathtakingingly beautiful but no more beautiful than rich, Isabel has absolute discretion to choose her life and she chooses (she believes) well. She marries Gilbert Osmonde and comes to know that she has made a dreadful blunder. Here in Chapter 42 (out of 55), Isabel gazes unblinkingly at her chosen fate: 

It had come gradually--it was not till the first year of their life together, so admirably intimate at first, had closed that she had taken the alarm. Then the shadows had begun to gather; it was as if Osmond deliberately, almost malignantly, had put the lights out one by one. The dusk at first was vague and thin, and she could still see her way in it. But it steadily deepened, and if now and again it had occasionally lifted there were certain corners of her prospect that were impenetrably black. These shadows were not an emanation from her own mind: she was very sure of that; she had done her best to be just and temperate, to see only the truth. They were a part, they were a kind of creation and consequence, of her husband's very presence. They were not his misdeeds, his turpitudes; she accused him of nothing --that is but of one thing, which was NOT a crime. She knew of no wrong he had done; he was not violent, he was not cruel: she simply believed he hated her. That was all she accused him of, and the miserable part of it was precisely that it was not a crime, for against a crime she might have found redress. He had discovered that she was so different, that she was not what he had believed she would prove to be. He had thought at first he could change her, and she had done her best to be what he would like. But she was, after all, herself--she couldn't help that; and now there was no use pretending, wearing a mask or a dress, for he knew her and had made up his mind. She was not afraid of him; she had no apprehension he would hurt her; for the ill-will he bore her was not of that sort. He would if possible never give her a pretext, never put himself in the wrong. Isabel, scanning the future with dry, fixed eyes, saw that he would have the better of her there. She would give him many pretexts, she would often put herself in the wrong. There were times when she almost pitied him; for if she had not deceived him in intention she understood how completely she must have done so in fact. She had effaced herself when he first knew her; she had made herself small, pretending there was less of her than there really was. It was because she had been under the extraordinary charm that he, on his side, had taken pains to put forth. He was not changed; he had not disguised himself, during the year of his courtship, any more than she. But she had seen only half his nature then, as one saw the disk of the moon when it was partly masked by the shadow of the earth. She saw the full moon now--she saw the whole man. She had kept still, as it were, so that he should have a free field, and yet in spite of this she had mistaken a part for the whole.
I haven' read them all, but I'm one of those who thinks Portrait of a Lady must be the best Henry James novel.  It's hard for us to believe in Isabel's apparently exalted view of what a marriage might be, but we knew that she believes it: her own conviction and her devotion to her own sense of herself are enough to carry all before her.  The best novel, and this perhaps the best moment in it.

1 comment:

Taxmom said...

Geologist husband read (at my urging)Portrait of a Lady. His take: "She could have avoided all of those problems if she had just married Caspar Goodwood to start out with!"