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Classics Corner > The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James: Discussion

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message 1: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Just a gentle reminder that discussion of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady is set to begin tomorrow, 1 June 2009.

With apologies and thanks to Philip, I'm going to lift his note of procedure from the thread on Evidence of Things Unseen:

"I think the approach of some previous discussion leaders has worked well, so I too would like us to treat this entire thread as one massive SPOILER rather than having to say so in every post that mentions key parts of the plot. So please proceed with caution here if you have yet to read or finish the book. Thanks!"


message 2: by Whitaker (last edited May 31, 2009 03:17AM) (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) A PRE-Discussion Potted Introduction to Henry James

Henry James (1843-1916) was born in New York City to a wealthy and prominent family. His father was a well-known writer and thinker, and James’s parents offered their son a solid education and frequent travel to Europe.

James began to write as a young man, publishing his first novel, Watch and Ward, in 1871. Over the next several years, James produced a wealth of short stories, novels, plays, and non-fiction prose. Living most of his life abroad, James moved in many prominent intellectual circles, befriending many of the great artists, writers, and thinkers of his day.

In a move that shocked many, James took British citizenship in 1915 in order to express his disappointment with the United States for not yet having entered the First World War. Feeling more at home abroad than in America, James spent the rest of his life in England.

James is considered a master of the novel form and one of the leading practitioners of realism, the literary movement that arose at the end of the Civil War as a reaction against romanticism. James's work falls into the category known as psychological realism, in which the significant action in a work takes place inside the minds of the characters.


message 3: by Whitaker (last edited May 31, 2009 03:37AM) (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) A PRE-Discussion Potted Introduction to The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady is widely considered the best of his early novels. The novel was first published serially in 1880 and 1881, appearing in Macmillan's Magazine in England and in Atlantic in the United States. The first book edition was published in November 1881 and met with an overwhelming critical response. Reviewers compared James's artistry to that of George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ivan Turgenev.

In The Nation, one critic wrote: "The Portrait of a Lady is an important work, the most important Mr. James has thus far written, and worthy of far more than mere perusal--worthy of study." The reviewer went on to add of James that "his powers of observation are not only remarkably keen but sleepless as well."

The other key characteristic of The Portrait of a Lady is its point of view. In most novels published before this one, the author was a prominent narrator--almost a character. In addition to telling the story, the author-narrator often inserted asides directly addressing the reader, commenting on the characters' actions, and so on.

James wanted readers to observe his characters directly and to interpret characters' actions themselves, just as they would observe people around them in life. This meant that he had to get himself as author out of the picture. So, while The Portrait of a Lady does have a third-person narrator, that narrator is not James and does not intrude into the story. Instead of readers learning about Isabel through a narrator's comments and interpretations, readers learn about Isabel directly by observing Isabel's actions.

In this, The Portrait of a Lady can be seen as a transitional novel in the development of this style. In Chapter IV, James provides a sketch of Isabel by telling us what Isabel is like, and he has yet to let go of the device of authorial comment:

“It may be affirmed without delay that Isabel was probably very liable to the sin of self-esteem; she often surveyed with complacency the field of her own nature; she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right; she treated herself to occasions of homage. Meanwhile her errors and delusions were frequently such as a biographer interested in preserving the dignity of his subject must shrink from specifying.”

This is in marked contrast with the tour de force that is Chapter XLII where Isabel contemplates the ruin of her marriage and her husband’s character. James lays bare her thoughts for us without comment.


message 4: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) See you all tomorrow!


message 5: by Dottie (new)

Dottie  (oxymoronid) | 1506 comments Tour de force is certainly the correct description!


message 6: by Whitaker (last edited Jun 01, 2009 06:10AM) (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) The Portrait of a Lady has been regarded as the story of Isabel's mind and how it shapes her destiny and her character. The novel is called a portrait, with Isabel Archer as its subject, and there are probably as many different views of her as there are readers. James describes her thus:

“Her nature had, in her conceit, a certain garden-like quality, a suggestion of perfume and murmuring boughs, of shady bowers and lengthening vistas, which made her feel that introspection was, after all, an exercise in the open air”

Mrs Touchett says to Ralph of Isabel:

“I don’t know whether she is a gifted being, but she’s a clever girl—with a strong will and a high temper. She has no idea of being bored. … I know the sort of girl she is. She’s very frank, and I’m very frank. … She thinks she knows a great deal of [the word:] … like most American girls; but like most American girls she's ridiculously mistaken.”

Ralph on the other hand describes Isabel thus:

“You seemed to me to be soaring far up in the blue—to be, sailing in the bright light, over the heads of men.”

Henrietta instead says to Isabel:

“I hope you'll never become grossly sensual; but I'm not afraid of that. The peril for you is that you live too much in the world of your own dreams. You're not enough in contact with reality—with the toiling, striving, suffering, I may even say sinning, world that surrounds you. You're too fastidious; you've too many graceful illusions.”

So, perhaps the best way to kick things off is to ask, “What did YOU think of Isabel Archer? Was she idealistic, moral and upright? Or was she just a silly git? Or really, did James get it all wrong: women just don’t behave that way? Is Isabel Archer just a figment of his male imagination that does not correspond to any real woman? Or does she remind you of yourself (or of a friend) when you were young?”

Please feel free, however, to comment on any other aspect of the book or take the discussion in a whole other direction.



message 7: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Actually, I thought Isabel Archer was an idiot, both before and after her marriage to Gilbert Osmond. Before, she was idealistic and fiery which is great to see in a young person. But she had absolutely no connection to the realities of life at all. All her knowledge was book knowledge, and she was just too obsessed with the idea of art and beauty. She saw them as a means to exalt her soul, which I find just pretentious.

It’s easy to see Isabel as having been lured into a marriage with Gilbert. But he never pretended to be anything other than he was. What suitor—especially in that century—doesn’t work to show only their good side and hide their bad? Whatever bad there was in him, she just chose not to see it. She fell for him precisely because she had this pretentious romantic notion of art. She was in love with a beautiful idea: that of an artistic, spiritual being in whom she would find a kindred explorer of refinement and art. Kind of like someone who dates an impoverished artist because he seems all grungy and romantic and tortured, but then later realizes that, really, he’s just lazy sponger.

And in the end, was Gilbert all that bad? The worst you can accuse him of was being fake, pretentious and conventional. So she didn’t get her spiritual enlightenment, but hey, that’s just life. He didn’t womanise, drink or gamble away her money, which is what other money grubbing husbands would have done. He wasn’t the best of husbands, but he wasn’t the worst either.

Okay, I'm going to practice ducking shoes now.


message 8: by Yoby (new)

Yoby (yobs) | 181 comments Whitaker wrote: "Actually, I thought Isabel Archer was an idiot, both before and after her marriage to Gilbert Osmond. Before, she was idealistic and fiery which is great to see in a young person. But she had absol..."
Is there a limit on the amount of shoes we can throw?




message 9: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) No, by all means, throw away. I've been practising. GRIN!


message 10: by [deleted user] (new)

To me The Portrait of a Lady was too much a before and after portrait with too many missing pieces in between. For example, how did she feel about the child she lost? My guess is she didn't think about it much but if she did it was with relief. Now at least her child was free. Something else I still don't understand, why did she marry Osmond?

Osmond didn't come across as the worst husband, but for Isabel he was. James doesn't give us much proof, just as she doesn't let her friends know what he does to her and how he makes her feel. But we do know there is something wrong.

It reminded me a bit of a colleague of mine. She has an abusive boyfriend and even though everyone she works with knows that she never admits to it. Almost like she doesn't notice it herself. She's only 22 and we're all trying to convince her to go back to school, but no luck so far.

Isabel was a very naive young girl before her marriage. She has never seen the 'real world', only the world as presented to her by books. She sits rights next to a covered window reading but never bothers to take away that cover to be able to look through that window. She rather fantasizes about the world beyond.

I don't think this was just Isabels fault. If she had met the right persons, had been properly educated, she could have become a wonderful person. What Ralph had meant for her to do with her money. Instead it attracts Gilbert Osmond who somehow manages to convince her to marry him. It is not until she is married that she is confronted with what the world is really like.

Then she not only knows, she's also trapped because she feels obliged to follow society's unwritten rules. She can't have anyone know how tragic her life turned out.

Ralph, the observer, sums it all up in just a few sentences:

"You wanted to see life for yourself ... but you weren't allowed to; you were punished for your desire. Crushed between the millstones of convention of all things."


message 11: by Susan_T. (last edited Jun 02, 2009 09:51AM) (new)

Susan_T. | 197 comments I was sympathetic toward Isabel, who seemed so ambitious in her desire for knowledge. The inheritance, though, freed her from having to make something out of what she learned. And her naivete, alas, led her to trust Madame Merl. Why didn't Ralph warn Isabel about M.M.?

At the end, what do you think Isabel did? I think she went back to Osmond.



message 12: by Candy (new)

Candy What a fantastic start, thanks for all the time you took Whitaker to set the discussion with some background. Your time is greatly appreciated. I am 1/3 of the way into this...(a re-read) and loving it. Oh how I love James! But need more time to assimilate and catch up on things around the apartment before I settle into this discussion. Back in a few days!


message 13: by Melissa (new)

Melissa (melissaharl) | 1453 comments Thanks for a great start, Whitaker.

I have mixed feelings about Isabel myself. I agree with your comment in post #3 that the more direct reveal of her thoughts in Chapter XLII is quite powerful. Still, I thought some of the narrator's earlier comments were delightful in their own way, such as this remark on p. 119 of my Penguin paperback:

Her desire to think well of herself had at least the element of humility that it always needed to be supported by proof.

That sentence told me a lot.





message 14: by Melissa (new)

Melissa (melissaharl) | 1453 comments This is the first Henry James that I've read in a very long while -- I think I may have read The Bostonians many years ago, I'm not sure. I enjoyed his thick, descriptive style very much, and the beauties of his language, even if it seemed that he took too long to get the first half of the story moving along.

One feature of James's style that I liked was his willingness to push and extend metaphors for his characters, in ways that deepened my understanding.

For example, there is this introductory symbol for Osmond, an elegant picture of the man's self-esteem and a good hint as to why Isabel the would-be connoisseur will find him attractive:

... he suggested, fine gold coin as he was, no stamp or emblem of the common mintage that provides for general circulation; he was the elegant complicated medal struck off for a special occasion. (p. 280)

Or the amusing picture of Osmond's sister, the Countess Gemini, with her flighty persona:

She was thin and dark and not at all pretty, having features that suggested some tropical bird -- a long beak-like nose, small, quickly-moving eyes and a mouth and chin that receded extremely. ... Her attire, voluminous and delicate, bristling with elegance, had the look of shimmering plumage, and her attitudes were as light and sudden as those of a creature who perched upon twigs. (p. 305)





message 15: by Jim (new)

Jim | 491 comments While I can understand the notion that see Isabel as the naive idealist caught by the corrupt European and doomed to a life of misery, I think we can find some evidence to support a more powerful image of Isabel. Of all her marital choices, Osmond offered her the most control over her life since he needed her money. And while he may not have ultimately been what she wanted, I am not sure that I see her submitting meekly to her fate once she returns to him.




message 16: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Jim, I think there is definitely something to that view. I am reminded of what the Countess said of Isabel:

"The Countess was not very exact at measurements, but it seemed to her that if Isabel should draw herself up she would be the taller spirit of the two."

Although Isabel was lucky that she married Gilbert in 1880 and not 1780. In 1780, married women had no rights; any property they brought into the marriage belonged to the husband. It only started changing after 1850.


message 17: by Melissa (new)

Melissa (melissaharl) | 1453 comments Jim and Whitaker, I've wondered a bit about the money question. I have presumed without doing any research that Osmond would control Isabel's money, in part due to their residence in Italy. Married women in the US needed their husband's approval for most financial transacrtions well into the 20th century, at least if my own family history is any guide, so I have assumed the same for 19th-century Rome (and here both parties to the marriage are Americans too). Pansy remains very much in the power of her father even after she reaches majority.

Isabel's original inheritance would have been controlled via British law, I suppose, even though both the deceased and the beneficiary were American citizens. But once she marries in Italy I presume British property law need not apply.

James says so little directly about these matters that I'm guessing his first readers would have been able to draw their own (correct) conclusions.


message 18: by Yulia (new)

Yulia | 1642 comments Whitaker, thanks so much for your fabulous introduction. I found your quotes on the various characters' opinion of Isabel very helpful and illuminating. (I often felt James made her character out to be more complicated than it was, but your quotes cut through all the surrounding brush.)

True, Osmond was neither violent nor a gambler, but isn't it often the more subtle forms of corruption that are more corrosive to those affected, just as verbal abuse may often be more difficult not to blame oneself for than physical abuse?

As for Isabel, she did seem a very real individual and not just an implausible fantasy of James's imagination. In fact, from your writing about her in message 7 as someone "obsessed with the idea of art and beauty" and "in love with a beautiful idea: that of an artistic, spiritual being in whom she would find a kindred explorer of refinement and art," I know exactly whom she reminds me of and why it was so difficult for me not to romanticize her.


message 19: by Yulia (last edited Jun 04, 2009 10:52AM) (new)

Yulia | 1642 comments Sibyl (message 10), I completely agree that the structure of the book is too much of a before-after look at Isabel's life, as if James realized after so many pages that his book wasn't going anywhere, so he rushed us through the marriage, honeymoon, miscarriage, setting up of the new home, and so on, as if these significant developments could simply be looked back on with regret by Isabel.

Regarding those who are drawn to particular types, I'm afraid, had isabel ever left Osmond, she would find yet another manipulative aesthete.

Jim, I have to disagree with your saying, "Osmond offered her the most control over her life since he needed her money." How does his dependence on her money give her any control of the relationship at all? Even if she were still the one in control of her inheritance, it's likely she would still feel beholden to him to maintain the kind of lifestyle he wanted for himself. It would be she serving his needs and not the other way around still. What mattered in her choosing a husband wasn't how much money he had or didn't have but how enlightened he was regarding her own rights as an individual and how much he cared for her own goals and well-being.

Philip, your quote in message 13 does say a lot about her stubborn insistence on remaining with Osmond. Thank you for pointing it out.

As for the tangled issue of property rights between America, England, and Italy, eeks! I have to say I don't think even James would know the actual stipulations should they separate or divorce unless he were an attorney specializing in international property rights and divorce law, but James avoided this issue entirely by making Isabel's challenge not one of legal matters but of morals and ideals, making the law essentially beside the point.


message 20: by Whitaker (last edited Jun 05, 2009 07:51AM) (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Women’s Rights in The Portrait of a Lady

I too was intrigued by the notion of Isabel’s wealth and did some scrouging around after reading the novel (BTW, does anyone know how much £60,000 is in today's currency?). What I found shocked me. While I had always known that women had few rights prior to the 20th century, I had never quite realized just how few.

Interestingly, women’s rights were in a state of flux at about the time James was writing The Portrait of a Lady. There were a number of movements in the US, UK and Europe to broaden the scope of women’s rights, especially to property. Given the amount of attention paid to it at the time, it is not unreasonable to assume that James must have been, at least, aware of the controversy if not the detailed workings of the law.

Married women, especially, were the most vulnerable. Given how much we take for granted the ability of a woman, married or not, to live independently, the state of women’s rights at that time sheds a lot of light on the relationships of the married women in the novel.

Because of the belief that husband and wife were “one flesh”, a married woman had no legal existence separate from her husband. In England, the case of Caroline Norton (1) highlighted the injustices faced by married women:

Mrs. Norton was a popular poet, novelist, and a beautiful English socialite who attempted to separate from her husband in 1836. After leaving her marital home, her husband prevented her from seeing their three sons and severed her financial support. After her husband's unsuccessful attempt to prove her guilty of an adulterous affair, Caroline filed for divorce on the ground of cruelty. Her claim was rejected, as English law did not recognize cruelty as just cause for divorce. Caroline Norton had no rights to sue for divorce, and could not force her husband to maintain her financial support. She was also unable to gain access to any of the marital property. Abandoned financially by her husband, Caroline Norton began writing to support herself. However, because she was still married, her husband was legally able secure much of her earnings for himself.

The position in the US and Europe was largely similar.

Things began to improve after 1850. In England, in 1882, married women gained the right to exercise separate rights over their inheritance, earnings and property (2). In Italy, however, while a married women would remain the owner of her property, she lost the right to administer it. Her husband could grant her this right by way of a power of attorney, but his permission was needed (2) (3). [Philip, you were right!:]

Family and property law matters are, as a general rule, applied based on the party’s domicile. Generally speaking, a party can acquire a domicile by showing that he or she intends to settle down in a country. By marrying Gilbert and living in Rome, Isabel would likely have been treated as domiciled in Italy and hence have been subject to Italian law.

Mrs Touchett was particularly lucky to have Mr Touchett as her husband. We pretty much take it for granted that a married woman should be able to live apart from the husband if she so wishes, but--since this was before 1882--he had a perfect legal right to cut off her finances and demand her return to the conjugal home. It explains why the Countess says to Isabel, “When my husband doesn’t want me to travel, he just doesn’t give me the money to do so.” It also explains why the question of marriage was such a thorny issue for Isabel. Henrietta, as a single woman, and Madame Merle, as a widow, were the most financially independent of the lot, with Henrietta being the best placed as she was able to work to earn her living.

What is not clear to me, however, is the extent of Isabel’s dependence on Gilbert’s approval. Clearly, the administration of her capital would have subject to his approval. But, her capital was held by a bank and she was only given the interest as earnings. Since stream of income might have been treated separately from capital by the law, Isabel may have had the ability to use that income without Gilbert’s prior approval. It would make sense then that Mr Touchett deliberately set up her inheritance in that way--precisely to minimize the risk to her. When the Countess says to Isabel, “When my husband doesn’t want me to travel, he just doesn’t give me the money to do so,” it seems to be a hint to Isabel that she was under no such constraint and was financially free to use her income to live independently of Gilbert if she so chose.

Is any of this relevant to understanding The Portrait of a Lady? Money plays a hugely important role in the lives of the female protagonists and gets mentioned by James quite a lot. He even takes the trouble to spell out the terms of Isabel’s inheritance. Using novels to highlight social injustices was not unusual for the time (cf: Mr Dickens), and it’s at least arguable that James was using the novel as a means to highlight the positions of different categories of women in society.

It's been a long post. If you've read all the way with me on this, on the question of Isabel's fate, what are we to make of this comment by James in Chapter XII:

"She [Isabel:] was a person of great good faith, and if there was a great deal of folly in her wisdom those who judge her severely may have the satisfaction of finding that, later, she became consistently wise only at the cost of an amount of folly which will constitute almost a direct appeal to charity."

Side Note: Shockingly, in a petition to Parliament, Caroline Norton also pointed out that under English law, her husband could have sued for restitution of conjugal rights and thus forced her, “as if a slave”, to return to his home. While she doesn’t mention this, I should highlight that it was not battery for a husband to beat his wife provided that he used a stick no thicker than his thumb. It was also not rape for a husband to force himself physically on his wife. Those truly were benighted times.



message 21: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) More on Isabel’s fate

Isabel did more than just return to Rome and Gilbert, she also left behind Casper. Here’s that last tender scene in all its Freudian goodness:

“You don’t know where to turn. Turn straight to me. I want to persuade you to trust me,” Goodwood repeated. And then he paused with his shining eyes. “Why should you go back--why should you go through that ghastly form?”
“To get away from you!” she answered. But this expressed only a little of what she felt. The rest was that she had never been loved before. She had believed it, but this was different; this was the hot wind of the desert, at the approach of which the others dropped dead, like mere sweet airs of the garden. It wrapped her about; it lifted off her feet, while the very taste of it, as of some sweet thing potent, acrid and strange, forced open her set teeth.

Isabel gave a long murmur, like a creature in pain; it was as if he were pressing something that hurt her.
“The world’s very small,” she said at random; she had an immense desire to appear to resist. She said it at random, to hear herself say something; but it was not what she meant. The world, in truth, had never seemed so large; it seemed to open out, all round her, to take the form of a mighty sea, where she floated in fathomless waters. She had wanted help, and here was help; it had come in a rushing torrent. I know not whether she believed everything he said, but she believed just then that to let him take her in his arms would be the next best thing to her dying. This belief, for a moment, was a kind of rapture, in which she felt herself sink and sink. In the movement she seemed to beat with her feet, in order to catch herself, to feel something to rest on.

“Do me the greatest of kindness of all,” she panted. “I beseech you to go away!”
… “As you love me, as you pity me, leave me alone!”
He glared at her a moment through the dusk, and the next instant she felt his arms about her and his lips on her own lips. His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession. So had she heard of those wrecked and under water following a train of images before they sink. But when darkness returned she was free. … She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.

Such a mass of images of death, violence and sex. Could it be that Isabel is fleeing the virile Casper for that “sterile dilettante”, Gilbert?



message 22: by Melissa (new)

Melissa (melissaharl) | 1453 comments Yes, I think she is doing just that, Whitaker.

I was very struck by this sequence too, one of the few overtly sensual passages in the book, apart from descriptions of scenery and drapery. :-)

Isabel experiences Casper's passion as violent insistence, which seems to both enthrall and repel her. It sounds to me as though she's never felt sexual longing and excitement of this order with Osmond, it's all so amazing to her. She is transported, feels pain, talks at random, loses her balance ... and then sends him away once again. Her friend Miss Stackhouse had advised her to leave her husband, and here the means are pressing on her, electrifying her in fact, but she either can't or won't take that step.


message 23: by Yulia (new)

Yulia | 1642 comments Isn't Isabel's true fault not her naivete but her stubbornness? She rejects Goodwood and Warburton in spite of her own feelings and the hopes of others because, if she'd agreed to either, she was afraid of being led down a path not of her own choosing. One significant reason she married Osmond was not only his financial need, but also because no one (except Mme. Merle) liked him. She insisted on doing what she believed others thought she shouldn't with the belief this contrariness was the expression of her true will. And even after she understands Osmond better, she fails to understand her own motivation in defying those who want the best for her. The more they insist, the more she resists their help, thereby leading to her isolation in the end. I don't see her as having matured much in the book, but of clinging to her juvenile way of exerting her own will by defying others. I found her a very difficult character to sympathize with or even like.


message 24: by Jim (new)

Jim | 491 comments Whatever the laws may have been, somehow I don't see Osmond ever allowing her to go in want materially or requiring that she do anything that did not please her. Appearances were crucial in their class, and no one would every forget whose money was financing the lifestyle.

I suspect that she will end up like Mrs. Touchett living with her husband just enough to keep up appearances. This may not have been all that uncommon at the time. If memory serves, J.P. Morgan lived on the other side of the Atlantic from his wife for many years, and the Touchetts were drawn from life.




message 25: by Whitaker (last edited Jun 05, 2009 07:52AM) (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Sibyl, Yulia, I really like the points you made about verbal and physical abuse. It’s true that Osmond never hits her, and his open contempt for her can be just as corrosive. She mentions more than once that she is afraid of him. It makes her return to him—if indeed she does--all the more mystifying.

Yulia, I could understand young Isabel and her idealism. I was naïve at that age too, and spent too much time with my nose buried in a book. Come to think of it, I still do, but I’d like to think I’ve seen a little more of life now. LOL! But youth is the time to be idealistic and make foolish mistakes. What irritated me about Isabel was her refusal to leave Osmond which was a mixture of both self-sacrificial idealism and a rigid sense of propriety. I couldn't help thinking though that May Welland from Age of Innocence would have been a much better match for ole Osmond. LOL!

I do wonder though about the ending. It’s clear that she has some kind of breakthrough / breakdown after being kissed by Casper, and we know she went to Rome. But what does she do after that? We assume that she returned to Osmond, but that can't be the whole story. Interestingly, Henrietta is quite calm about the whole episode. She not only does not insist to Casper that he must go rescue her, she seems almost evasive about what Isabel has done. I can only imagine that Isabel must somehow have convinced her that she was doing the right thing because Henrietta is not the kind of woman to give up lightly. The second Isabel gets her breakthrough however she literally disappears from the portrait. We know nothing more about her or her thoughts. Only James’s cryptic comment in Chapter XII gives us any clue at all about what happened to her thereafter.


message 26: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Susan wrote: "Why didn't Ralph warn Isabel about M.M.?"

Yes, that annoyed me very much. He was so mysterious and cryptic about it. Although given Isabel's track record, I doubt she would have listened to him.




message 27: by Whitaker (last edited Jun 05, 2009 08:06AM) (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Yulia wrote: "Isn't Isabel's true fault not her naivete but her stubbornness? She rejects Goodwood and Warburton in spite of her own feelings and the hopes of others because, if she'd agreed to either, she was ..."

True, Isabel was horribly obstinate. Your comment made me recall her conversation with Mrs Touchett at the beginning of the novel where she says that she always wants to know the things she shouldn't do. Mrs Touchett asks, "So as to do them?" (a more prophetic remark you could not find) and she replies, "So as to choose."

I'm not so sure though that she ever really considered Casper and Warburton as husband material. Towards the end, Mrs Touchett asks her if she regrets not marrying Warburton, and Isabel says no. The scene is written in such a way that I don't think James intends us to see her as lying: "Isabel shook her head slowly, but not heavily. 'No, dear aunt.'"

As for Casper, she really does seem frightened of Casper. True it is that her fear may have to do more with a terror of sexual "possession", but it is a real fear for her no less.

In neither of these cases does she come across as wanting to love and marry them but consciously and deliberately thwarting herself out of stubbornness and pride.


message 28: by Merry (new)

Merry (m75248) Whitaker wrote: "Susan wrote: "Why didn't Ralph warn Isabel about M.M.?"

Yes, that annoyed me very much. He was so mysterious and cryptic about it. Although given Isabel's track record, I doubt she would have li..."


I just re-read that page, Ralph is preparing to die, his father is gone, he has no special relationship with his mother, he made sure he wasn't "burdened" by enormous wealth by asking his father to gift more money to others, especially Isabel. He is very fond of her, but he cannot protect her, for he knows the end is near for him. I think he actually has lost his will to live, and even though he is suspicious of MM, if it is not her, it will be someone else that persuades the young, naive Isabel to make a mistake in her choices. Perhaps with the large inheritance, Ralph feels she will be taken care of now, and he need not worry about her anymore. I wish he had shared more of his concerns as well. She is so enamored with MM, would she have even listened?




message 29: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 05, 2009 10:00AM) (new)

I thought Ralph said somewhere that warning Isabel would only make her do what she was warned not to do. Maybe he said that about marrying Osmond, but the same could apply to her friendship with Madame Merle.


message 30: by Merry (new)

Merry (m75248) Sibyl wrote: "I thought Ralph said somewhere that warning Isabel would only make her do what she was warned not to do. Maybe he said that about marrying Osmond, but the same could apply to her friendship with Ma..."

That sounds like Isabel, just like a child, tell them one thing and they do the opposite.


message 31: by Merry (new)

Merry (m75248) Merry wrote: "Whitaker wrote: "Susan wrote: "Why didn't Ralph warn Isabel about M.M.?"

Yes, that annoyed me very much. He was so mysterious and cryptic about it. Although given Isabel's track record, I doubt sh..."


I am replying to my own reply! Now I would like to say, it is my opinion, at this time, scheduled to change again tomorrow!...in regards to Ralph not warning Isabel of her MM.....that Ralph knows Isabel wants to choose her own fate, he finds amusement in watching her. He even says that he is "restricted to mere spectatorship at the game of life" due to his illness. Isabel brings him entertainment. Since she refused two perfectly good marriage proposals, he is unaware that she would actually accept the third. He thinks with all the newly inherited money, she needs no man to support her and once again she will say no.

But she doesn't, and I think she said yes because she feels sorry for the artist with no money, she did not grow up with wealth, she is but a poor, American girl, a simple young woman from Albany. It is a relationship based on how she can help, save this person, Osmond.
Another reason she says yes, MM is a supreme confidence trickster, a constant theme of the author's, being taken in by someone you have learned to trust.

MM putting Osmond and Isabel together, what is that all about. Why is she helping him capture a woman with money? It just seems there is something else going on there.


message 32: by Whitaker (last edited Jun 06, 2009 09:04AM) (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Merry wrote: "...in regards to Ralph not warning Isabel of her MM.....that Ralph knows Isabel wants to choose her own fate, he finds amusement in watching her."

Yes! That's quite true about Ralph. He has that conversation with Isabel where he tells her, "I had amused myself with planning out a high destiny for you."

Merry wrote: MM putting Osmond and Isabel together, what is that all about. Why is she helping him capture a woman with money? It just seems there is something else going on there.

I thought it was because she wanted Pansy to have a wealthy step-mother: it would give her a step up in society and a chance to marry someone rich herself. All things considered, given how hard women had it in those days, you kind of can't fault her for that attitude really. What mother wouldn't want the best for her child. And given the way Osmond had had her brought up, so utterly blank and naive, what other choices could she possibly have in her future but to marry well?

I thought that was quite criminal of Osmond actually. It's like declawing a cat--he literally went out of his way to create someone defenceless and helpless. I can more or less accept everything else about him, but that was just cruel.



message 33: by Yulia (last edited Jun 06, 2009 12:18PM) (new)

Yulia | 1642 comments When I think not of what was said of Isabel but of her actions, I remember how alien she seemed to me: I could never find a clear explanation for why she turned down Warburton. I still can't. I could understand her fear of Goodwood as he always struck me as rather pushy and forcefl, however much he said he wantd what was best for her. But Warburton I couldn't find one reason never to consider as a possibility, as she claims. It seemed to me as if she lacked any authentic desire for any of the men and was drawn to Osmond only because of her naive visions of what she could do for him, not at all because of any chemistry between them.

She approached marriage and love in such a cold fashion: it's very easy to believe her when she says she never experienced love (for a man) before. Really, it was Madame Merle she was in love with. She had no desire for men whatsoever.

Whitaker, it's odd how you didn't find him a very bad husband to Isabel, yet thought it cruel for Osmond to make his daughter naive and defenseless. I can't see how the latter is awful yet his deception and use of Isabel are forgivable.

On another note, I get tired of James's recurrent them of the rich being taken advantage of by needier individuals. What about the countless poor workers who are taken advantage of by their tycoon bosses,like the father in The Golden Bowl? I keep on thinking, poor rich folk! James needed a reality check on this, the proportion of poor taken advantage of by the rich vs. the other way around. The latter may make for better novels, but they don't make for a very sympathetic grudge.


message 34: by Merry (new)

Merry (m75248) Whitaker wrote: "Merry wrote: "...in regards to Ralph not warning Isabel of her MM.....that Ralph knows Isabel wants to choose her own fate, he finds amusement in watching her."

Yes! That's quite true about Ralp..."


Another thought, she used Isabel to set up Osmond and Pansy financially, but also, could she have also wanted this naive "creature" to have the sad life that she has had, by leading her into a situation that she knew very well would clip her wings and she would be unhappy, just as she is....MM ruined Isabel's life, perhaps out of jealousy, in addition to the other conclusions we are posting.




message 35: by Merry (new)

Merry (m75248) Yulia wrote: I could never find a clear explanation for why she turned down Warburton.

Hi Yuli, why did she turn down Warburton? I want to think it is because she wanted to marry someone more like herself, not one from the privileged class such as Lord Warburton. Also she had just arrived in Europe with the whole world at her feet and did not want to be tied down by marriage. It is only thru life experiences does she mature and quite possibly later on, she may have thought it was a path she should have taken. After what she went thru with Osmond, Warburton would have been a walk in the park!

Isabel, and love, in the end it was she who finally saw the love she had for her dear sweet cousin, Ralph. Not in a married relationship way, but as someone who sincerely, deeply loved her and cared for her, hence the inheritance. Isabel was taken in by MM, but so was Mrs. Touchett. Eventually they both learned how they were deceived. Ah, such is life, makes you want to crawl in a hole and read!

....in regards to wealth vs poor, James writes from experience, perhaps he never experienced the poor side of society. I do appreciate him commenting on the poor rich to enlighten me with his experiences. Just another view of society from another author.

And Whitaker, surely you do recognize the horrible treatment of Isabel by Osmond, as well as his daughter. There are just so many points of discussion in this novel. I found it all quite fascinating.



message 36: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Yulia wrote: "Whitaker, it's odd how you didn't find him a very bad husband to Isabel, yet thought it cruel for Osmond to make his daughter naive and defenseless. I can't see how the latter is awful yet his deception and use of Isabel are forgivable."

Well, I think it's one thing to attack another adult capable of defending herself. At the end of the day, she has the means of escape at her disposal. Plus, in the final analysis, what has he done to Isabel? He's nasty, cold and cutting to her. In the greater scheme of things, that's not all that vile. But to mould a child to be a defenceless pawn: that's close to Humbolt Humbolt territory.


message 37: by Merry (new)

Merry (m75248) Ok, Whitaker, I can see your thinking, the treatment of of the daughter is reprehensible, because she is a minor. I will agree, but I must say, it is also unforgivable, the treatment towards Isabel.


message 38: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) I must say I was quite startled that no one in the novel appeared to find poor blank Pansy anything other than charming. Not even Isabel--at least initially. She really must have been the quintessential Victorian male fantasy: sweet, pretty and completely docile. Ugh.

Did anyone else feel that all the female characters were presented in a bad light in some way or another? Henrietta is clownishly tactless. Isabel is naive and stubborn. Mrs Touchett is emotionally distant and self-centered. Madame Merle is, well, Madame Merle. The Countess is coarse and vulgar. Pansy is a non-entity.

All the men--with the exception of Osmond, of course--however! Casper: rich, handsome, virile. Warburton: rich, aristocratic, caring and cultured. Ralph: kind to the point of saintliness. Mr Touchett: rich kind benefactor. Even Henrietta's and Pansy's beaux. Both a bit bumbling but in an adorable way.

Or is this just me?


message 39: by Merry (new)

Merry (m75248) Yulie - as for Caspar Goodwood - I saw him as a modern day stalker!



message 40: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Merry wrote: "Ok, Whitaker, I can see your thinking, the treatment of of the daughter is reprehensible, because she is a minor."

Yes, that's exactly it. :-)




message 41: by Yulia (new)

Yulia | 1642 comments Ha, yes, Merry, he was a stalker!

Whitaker, you weren't alone in finding James imbalanced in his treatment of the sexes. The two were not fairly apportioned their virtues and failings. And Osmond's faults do not make up for the overwhelming goodness of the other men (stalking aside). Woe to men for the undesirability of women!


message 42: by Merry (new)

Merry (m75248) Whitaker wrote: "I must say I was quite startled that no one in the novel appeared to find poor blank Pansy anything other than charming. Not even Isabel--at least initially. She really must have been the quintesse..."

WHITAKER - good thoughts, I have not read any other books by James, do you know if this is a trend of his?
He never married, correct? Hum...he has a way with words but apparently not with women! HA!


message 43: by Yulia (last edited Jun 06, 2009 07:42PM) (new)

Yulia | 1642 comments From my reading or knowledge of other works of his, he isn't necessarily always so hard on women. In Daisy Miller, it is society to blame, not Daisy, for her fortunes. In Washington Square, Catherine is also a sympathetic figure, though not known for her intelligence. In The Wings of the Dove, the heiress has a pure yet not naive spirit. And The Golden Bowl presents a range of darkness. I'm unfamiliar with his other works, but I would say he's generally more balanced with the sexes than he is with the upper and lower classes.


message 44: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Yulia wrote: "From my reading or knowledge of other works of his, he isn't necessarily always so hard on women."

That's good to know. :-)



message 45: by Yulia (last edited Jun 06, 2009 07:50PM) (new)

Yulia | 1642 comments Whitaker, I never had a chance to thank you for all your research in the marital laws of Europe and America in the 19th century. It was very disturbing, especially the part about cruelty not being grounds for divorce, but it shows just how false and ignorant commentators are about the timeless superiority of our treatment of women over that in countries of the Middle East, as has been argued on FOX news most recently this past week after Obama's speech in Egypt. (Wow, Obama still isn't recognized by spell check!)


message 46: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Yulia wrote: "Whitaker, I never had a chance to thank you for all your research in the marital laws of Europe and America in the 19th century. It was very disturbing, especially the part about cruelty not being..."

You're welcome. I'm glad you found it interesting. It was quite an eye-opener for me too. :-)




message 47: by Whitaker (last edited Jun 07, 2009 08:33AM) (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) One of the words that keeps coming up in the novel is the word “justice” in its various forms. A key passage at the beginning has Isabel saying, "Besides, I try to judge things for myself, to judge wrong, I think, is more honorable than not to judge at all. I don’t wish to be a mere sheep in the flock; I wish to choose my fate and know something of human affairs beyond what other people think it compatible with propriety to tell me. "

Interestingly, James uses different nuances of the word “justice”. He uses it in the sense of “passing judgement” which is something that Gilbert does. Speaking of Gilbert Osmond, Ralph says: “He judges and measures, approves and condemns, altogether by that.” Speaking to Isabel of Ralph’s attitude to her, Madame Merle uses justice in the same sense of being judged fairly, “Justice is all I want." In the same way, when Gilbert and Madame Merle quarrel, he says that he will not have the feeling of complete success “till I’ve made you stop judging me.” And when Isabel visits Pansy in the convent, she observes of her, “She didn’t presume to judge others, but she had judged herself”.

Another meaning associated with justice is the word “just” meaning “fairness”. Isabel, in particular, uses it a lot and we are told of her that she had a “passion for justice”. Isabel says, “I want to be treated with justice; I want nothing but that.” Even later, thinking of Madame Merle’s role in her marriage, Isabel says to herself:

“Whatever happens to me let me not be unjust,” she said; “let me bear my burdens myself and not shift them upon others!” … Her poor winged spirit had always had a great desire to do its best, and it had not as yet been seriously discouraged. It wished, therefore, to hold fast to justice—not to pay itself by petty revenges.

She says of Ralph, “Gilbert had never been so deep, so just.”

I find it very fascinating how James uses these two meanings of “justice” to illuminate how people in society judge each other based on appearances only, and on values that are only skin-deep. On the other hand, they ignore the need to be fair, to try to understand others deeply, which is something Isabel--for all her faults--tries to do.


message 48: by Yulia (last edited Jun 07, 2009 12:56PM) (new)

Yulia | 1642 comments I find that fascinating. It makes me see some logic in her actions after all. Perhaps I was too busy judging Isabel's actions (comparing them to what I'd have done) to understand them.


message 49: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) I was reading through the posts and it struck me that we've talked so much about Isabel that we've not said very much about any of the other characters. There are so many of them and you can look at them as individuals and as groups of American vs Europeans.

James is supposed to have Europeans represent corruption and lassitude, while Americans are naive and brash. That certainly comes across here. But it seemed a little unfair. When we read Age of Innocence, we could see that the Americans could be as conservative and as rigid as the Europeans shown here. I wonder if that was Edith Wharton's rebuttal to James.

Another thing, at least in this novel, is that it's not so much Europeans per se but Europeanized Americans. And Madame Merle had a very pointed comment about how Americans in Europe were like parasites because they had nothing to do there but to live off other people.

At the end of the day, for me, the character I liked the most was on the European side: the Countess. She was so unashamedly brash and vulgar, I found her so very alive. She was the least judgemental of the lot, and so very anti-ideals, very "well a woman's gotta do what a woman's gotta do". And in the end, she was the one who helped Isabel the most.


message 50: by Melissa (new)

Melissa (melissaharl) | 1453 comments I know why you like her, Whitaker, but surely the Countess Gemini would count as an American, since she's Osmond's sister?


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