The Magazine

Picture Perfect

How the Master saw the outsider’s inner life.

May 20, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 34 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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James wrote many intricate stories, long and short, but never a better one than Portrait. It is a counter-Columbian parable in which Isabel Archer, seeking personal liberation, tries to avoid the snares of class, race, money, and history; the ultimate irony is that she cannot. In her ambition to escape these ensnaring forces, Isabel is blinded by Gilbert Osmond’s subtle, sophisticated, and retiring manner, and misses his caddishness and will to dominate. Hers is not a failure of intelligence or sensibility—she is richly endowed with both. It is a deficit of worldly experience and savoir-faire which leads her to assist in her own entrapment. 

Once her illusions fall away, Isabel defies Osmond and goes back to England, to the bedside of her dying cousin, but her future is left uncertain. She has promised Pansy (now buried in a convent by her father to prevent a marriage he disapproves of) to come back to Rome, and presumably does so, having again rebuffed the advances of her American friend Caspar Goodwood—but not before experiencing a blinding burst of physical passion when he kisses her farewell. Her future is left unexplored, however—to the displeasure of many readers.

Anyone who writes about Henry James, especially regarding a book as complex as Portrait, must be granted license and amplitude. Michael Gorra exploits them to the full, although his very readable guide and exposition are at times a bit overfurnished with tangents, repetition, and duplication. He is nonetheless a fine critic and never sounds those off-key notes now so common in academic criticism.  Gorra finds it necessary to tip his hat briefly to the consuming prurience about James’s sexuality, though he never pretends that we can penetrate the Victorian silence that surrounds it. Sexuality would seem to be of some relevance to James’s tales of young women, especially in a story focused on a calamitous marriage. We know that he was haunted all his adult life by the tragic early death of a brilliant cousin, Minnie Temple, and no doubt her memory figured in his conception of Isabel Archer and others.

Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel is a masterly treatment of a great book. For readers who find Henry James difficult, it is an ideal primer, with its focus on James’s unsurpassed ability to enter the thoughts of his characters and propel his tales through that inner theater of consciousness which he may claim to have invented.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. wrote about Henry James in his novel Lions at Lamb House (2007).