Henry James (1843-1916) once wrote that art, especially literary art, “makes life, makes interest, makes importance.” James’s fiction and criticism is the most highly conscious, sophisticated, and difficult of its era. With Twain, James is generally ranked as the greatest American novelist of the second half of the 19th century.
Henry James was born in New York City in 1843 and was raised in Manhattan. James’s father, a prominent intellectual and social theorist, traveled a great deal to Geneva, Paris, and London, so Henry and his brother, William, accompanied him and virtually grew up in those locations as well. As a child, James was shy, delicate, and had a difficult time mixing with other boys—his brother, who was much more active, called him a sissy. William James, of course, went on to become a great American philosopher, while Henry became one of the nation’s preeminent novelists.
James is noted for his “international theme” — that is, the complex relationships between naive Americans and cosmopolitan Europeans. What his biographer Leon Edel calls James’s first, or “international,” phase encompassed such works as Transatlantic Sketches (travel pieces, 1875), The American (1877), Daisy Miller (1879), and a masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady (1881). In The American, for example, Christopher Newman, a naive but intelligent and idealistic self-made millionaire industrialist, goes to Europe seeking a bride. When her family rejects him because he lacks an aristocratic background, he has a chance to revenge himself; in deciding not to, he demonstrates his moral superiority.
James’s second period was experimental. He exploited new subject matters — feminism and social reform in The Bostonians (1886) and political intrigue in The Princess Casamassima (1885). He also attempted to write for the theater, but failed embarrassingly when his play Guy Domville (1895) was booed on the first night.
In his third, or “major,” phase James returned to international subjects, but treated them with increasing sophistication and psychological penetration. The complex and almost mythical The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) (which James felt was his best novel), and The Golden Bowl (1904) date from this major period. If the main theme of Twain’s work is appearance and reality, James’s constant concern is perception. In James, only self-awareness and clear perception of others yields wisdom and self-sacrificing love. As James develops, his novels become more psychological and less concerned with external events. In James’s later works, the most important events are all psychological — usually moments of intense illumination that show characters their previous blindness. For example, in The Ambassadors, the idealistic, aging Lambert Strether uncovers a secret love affair and, in doing so, discovers a new complexity to his inner life. His rigid, upright, morality is humanized and enlarged as he discovers a capacity to accept those who have sinned.
The Portrait of A Lady
The Portrait of a Lady explores the conflict between the individual and society by examining the life of Isabel Archer, a young American woman who must choose between her independent spirit and the demands of social convention. After professing and longing to be an independent woman, autonomous and answerable only to herself, Isabel falls in love with and marries the sinister Gilbert Osmond, who wants her only for her money and who treats her as an object, almost as part of his art collection. Isabel must then decide whether to honor her marriage vows and preserve social propriety or to leave her miserable marriage and escape to a happier, more independent life, possibly with her American suitor Caspar Goodwood. In the end, after the death of her cousin Ralph, the staunchest advocate of her independence, Isabel chooses to return to Osmond and maintain her marriage. She is motivated partly by a sense of social duty, partly by a sense of pride, and partly by the love of her stepdaughter, Pansy, the daughter of Osmond and his manipulative lover Madame Merle.
James skillfully intertwines the novel’s psychological and thematic elements. Isabel’s downfall with Osmond, for instance, enables the book’s most trenchant exploration of the conflict between her desire to conform to social convention and her fiercely independent mind. It is also perfectly explained by the elements of Isabel’s character: her haphazard upbringing has led her to long for stability and safety, even if they mean a loss of independence, and her active imagination enables her to create an illusory picture of Osmond, which she believes in more than the real thing, at least until she is married to him. Once she marries Osmond, Isabel’s pride in her moral strength makes it impossible for her to consider leaving him: she once longed for hardship, and now that she has found it, it would be hypocritical for her to surrender to it by violating social custom and abandoning her husband.
In the same way that James unites his psychological and thematic subjects, he also intertwines the novel’s settings with its themes. Set almost entirely among a group of American expatriates living in Europe in the 1860s and 70s, the book relies on a kind of moral geography, in which America represents innocence, individualism, and capability; Europe represents decadence, sophistication, and social convention; and England represents the best mix of the two. Isabel moves from America to England to continental Europe, and at each stage she comes to mirror her surroundings, gradually losing a bit of independence with each move. Eventually she lives in Rome, the historic heart of continental Europe, and it is here that she endures her greatest hardship with Gilbert Osmond.
Narratively, James uses many of his most characteristic techniques in Portrait of a Lady. In addition to his polished, elegant prose and his sedate, slow pacing, he utilizes a favorite technique of skipping over some of the novel’s main events in telling the story. Instead of narrating moments such as Isabel’s wedding with Osmond, James skips over them, relating that they have happened only after the fact, in peripheral conversations. This literary technique is known as ellipses. In the novel, James most often uses his elliptical technique in scenes when Isabel chooses to value social custom over her independence—her acceptance of Gilbert’s proposal, their wedding, her decision to return to Rome after briefly leaving for Ralph’s funeral at the end of the novel. James uses this method to create the sense that, in these moments, Isabel is no longer accessible to the reader; in a sense, by choosing to be with Gilbert Osmond, Isabel is lost.