Tuesday, November 30, 2010
The end of The Portrait of a Lady: How could you!
The conclusion at last of Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady," and what a horror it is! Isabel Archer leaves her husband Osmond against his direct orders (!) to go to England to visit her dying cousin Ralph. After Ralph dies she briefly sees her first suitor, Warburton, who is now engaged to an English woman he's known for 3 weeks (we never see her). Isabel's aunt is cold and distant, her best friend Henrietta about to marry Bantling. The only one left is a hapless Goodwood, who shows up and pleads with her to leave her marriage and stay with him - to turn her back on convention and propriety. He holds her, kisses her, it's the first time this cold woman has ever felt (as far as we know - this is a James novel after all) any sexual stirring. And then, finally, in the last scene, we learn that Isabel has gone back to her husband. How awful! What a terrible, empty life she will face - much like her aunt, who lived through a loveless marriage. This ending so painful that James cannot even write it directly, but in typical Jamesian manner he shows it by indirection - Henrietta informing Goodwood. I've posted on this issue before, but the end of Portrait is a distinct turning toward European trope: the hero returning toward incorporation in society and convention. An American hero(ine) would definitely have run away with Goodwood, would opt for the rebellious, the unconventional, the individual. Whether James himself is corrupted by the European style (does he really think Isabel is doing the right thing?) or whether he's showing us the ruination of a character is another topic. But I think all American readers who finish this novel must say: How could you!