Monday, April 02, 2007

A Late Reading of Henry James' The Portrait of A Lady

(Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

Isabel Archer is a woman of high intelligence who meets a series of people who feel that she has a great future. She hasn’t the means or the opportunity to make this happen. She doesn’t even desire it. A number of people, who begin to love her after they get to know her, become providers and facilitators. She lacked exposure; she is taken under her aunt's wing and she travels abroad. She lacked means; she is bequeathed a fortune. She lacked opportunity; a number of well endowed patrons and suitors offer her all they have. She is empowered.

None of her friends, relations or acquaintances believes she has a fault. Her creator, however, distances himself (and the readers) from Isabel and we see her with all her faults. This is the strong point of this novel. Isabel is wilful, opinionated, misguided and blind to several things which are obvious to characters with far less intelligence. She has lofty ideals and her goal in life is an idealised abstraction of perfection. She loses touch with reality, transferring her perceptions to other people's minds. She isn’t so much the innocent abroad as the self deluded victim of her own flawed, blinkered vision. However, these are only aspects of her character.

In spite of every opportunity and sufficient means, Isabel proceeds to make a horrible mistake and marry a fraud who only wants her fortune. She makes errors of judgement and befriends all the wrong people. A few years after a brilliant future was predicted for her, her young life is a mess, and all prospect of happiness ruined.

There are people who do things, and there are people to whom things happen. For the first time, I saw this novel as the tragedy of the people of the second kind. Could Isabel have prevented the disaster which overtook her life? Can anyone control the direction which life takes?It isn’t just the flaws in her character which lead to all her suffering. It is also the series of unfortunate events that follow one after another. Things 'happen'. Besides, the world is full of 'other people', and their actions affect every individual. No one can control the entire world around them and if things go wrong, it isn’t always for want of trying.

And yet, at every point Isabel had a choice and made the wrong choice. Would the right choices have guaranteed that she lived a life without sorrow? That's too metaphysical a question for this train of thought! The people who care for Isabel feel betrayed by her unrealised potential and unfulfilled promise. The seeds of greatness are gone to waste. There are many Isabels in real life. There are artists and performers, or sportspersons or leaders who never quite make it to the top or anywhere near there. For those who watch them with a sense of expectation, it is tragic.

Of course, both greatness and tragedy are perceptions, not absolutes. Isabel was perceived to be great. Readers of the novel perceive the conclusion as a tragedy. The character herself may think otherwise.

1 comment:

Eliza said...

An interesting insight.
How would it be if you took the character and traced her life as it would have been, had she made the right choices!