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henry james - ambassadors & portrait of a lady

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Henry James: The Ambassadors and the Portrait of a Lady

The novel, according to Henry James, is “an ado” and the larger the form it takes the greater the ado. James’s preoccupation with the meaning of form and subject in The Ambassadors and Portrait of a Lady elaborate his idea that “composition alone is positive beauty” and that the ‘germ’ of a novel is in the sense of a single character rather than in any conceit of plot.

While Foster famously remarked that this concern with pattern means that for James “most of human life has to disappear before he can do us a novel,” this emphasis on the single individual can be seen as a validating of the human scale in the context of the challenges presented in the late 19c by the evolutionary theory, which in Beer’s words “was both threatening and exhilarating” offering an all-inclusive order which emphasised transformation and variety, at the same time as its “insistence on chance as part of a deterministic order…perturbed.”

As Van Ghent notes, for James the “highest affirmation of life is the development of the subtlest and most various consciousness.” Both TA which deals with “the little idea of the figure of an elderly man who has not lived” and POL which deals with “a girl who has dreamed of freedom” can be seen as adventures of perception, as the inner life is converted into a substitute field of action. The plots in both novels are defined to make being a mode of doing, to make Isabel’s vigil in POL for example, as exciting as “the surprise of a caravan.”

This focus on the inner life can be seen in terms of Ford Maddox Ford’s argument that impressionism is based on a recognition that “life didn’t narrate but made impressions.” As Fiedelson notes, in POL “instead of devising a world” to define the heroine, James attempts to “discover the world entitled by her way of seeing.” Similarly in TA James wanted to show “the sense of things” through Strether’s “groping knowledge of them since his very gropings would figure among his most interesting motions,” revealing that as Ellman says “the nature of reality is dependent on ways one represents it to oneself”.

Wells criticised this project as leading to the “elaborate copious emptiness” of James’s novels, focusing too much on too little of the material world, on “a dead kitten, an eggshell, a bit of string,” - images which as Thomas J Otten points out map out the focus of James’s novels on what Merle in POL calls “appurtenances” and ‘small’ lives.

However James’s often quoted comment that “really, universally, relations stop nowhere” and that the problem of the artist is to “draw a circle within which they shall happily appear to do so” suggests that as Matthiessen argues James’s novels show a profound awareness of the “huge collective life” beyond this charmed circle. This can be seen in TA as Strether in Paris thinks of the suffering Paris has witnessed, This world outside the novel and the references to it however are “ the very edge of James’s pictures,” which are deliberately framed to in Fiedelson words “invest social history with meaning” by placing the centre of the subject in the consciousness of the main character, aiming to reach what James referred to as the “civic use of the imagination.”

In both novels, the use of the international situation, coming from America to Europe and the gap of beginnings it allows create a sense of the characters as newborn, foregrounding Strether’s moral innocence in TA and Isabel’s independence in POL. As Mathhiessen puts it, the burden of TA is that the “hero is awakened to a new sense of life”, while in PL as Fiedelson notes, Isabel enters as “the harbinger of the meaning of life.”

It has often been noted that many of James’ later novels can be seen as making deliberate use of the fairytale mode. TA for example as Ellman argues subverts the outlined plot as Strether “takes so much pleasure in the journey he forgets the prize” moving away from the narrow world of Woollet to fall under the spell of romance . This can be paralleled to the way in which Isabel as Chase puts it, is compelled to write a romance in the medium of a materialist world and a realist novel. Both novels thus illustrate the possibilities of in James words, “imagination as a conserving force.” What Poirer referred to as James’ respect for the liberty of the character is fore-grounded in POL as Isabel is “allowed as much freedom as can struggle against the rigidities of social/literary formula” in Bell’s words. As a whole the novel shifts between the contradictions of various traditions of storytelling from marriage plot to a novel of education to realism, with the other characters representing other lives Isabel might live, and expressing the idea that life is a path with many forkings.

Similarly, TA “exhibits the way fiction may be a contest among different possibilities,” when Strether attempts to recover Chad’s story, offering potential plots which “leave the reader at a crossroads.” As Bell argues the “self-revising method” of TA “builds upon occasions each corrective of the last, aborting expectations while preserving possibilites.”

However in both novels, the freedom given to the characters comes up inevitably against the need for plot, showing that in Bell’s words there is “no other way to tell stories than to suppress some of the infinitude of human possibility.” The sense of latent potentiality in TA is made possible by Strether’s gradual move from a fixed code of honour and duty to relativity and to impressionistic receptivity. This program of perception in implying openness to chance and adventure is linked to Paris as a discursive site of transformation, embodying the “difference” which James described as the theme and aesthetic of TA. In POL, similarly, Isabel’s affronting her destiny creates an interplay of free will and determinism in the novel, which as Mathiessen argues can be seen as an expression of “inner reliance in the face of adversity.”

This resistance to design in POL is represented thematically in Isabel’s preoccupation with choice and the need to prolong it in the first half of the book, a theme and a preoccupation which contributes to this part’s structural “diffuseness”.

This seems to parallel Strether’s early deferral of the recognition of knowledge in TA. For example, finding Chad “obscure” he explains “that’s why I’m waiting,” stalling the plot which as Ellman notes, grows as dilatory as the hero. In this sense in TA as in POL the moral problem of the novel becomes an aesthetic problem of form. This deferral is sustained by the void Mrs Newsome represents in the novel, where the failure inherent in her delegations means that where the ambassadors are commissioned to extend her presence, they instead dissipate her absence. Like TA, PL can be read in terms of Kermode’s notion of secrecy, in that often the key moments in the plot are those in which knowledge is withheld. One striking example is that of the “momentous moment of choice” the moment when Isabel chooses her husband, a moment which is elided, represented as a virtual blank which Bell has argued allows us to feel her potentiality is still intact.

Critics have often noted that Isabel’s choice of Osmond is related to his being a “non-entity” implying an escape from socially determined types which Isabel perhaps sees as her way of maintaining independence and choice even after she has chosen him as her husband. However, as Bell says, the marriage is also a way for Isabel to act through delegation. She chooses a husband having realised the absence of a plot for the story she wants to live, - the story of the independent wealthy single woman. This is a realisation which is represented thematically in the novel, which summarises and elides her “adventures” as a single woman, representing them also as a blank story, without available frames or contexts. In this sense Isabel, like Ralph and Strether, attempts to recover a “supra-sensual hour of freedom” in another’s story, finally runs from independence by reverting to traditional patterns and attempting to live vicariously through a man. In TA Strether is a reader, preferring life as literature.

Similarly Rimmon-Keenan suggests little scenes such as the fact that Isabel doesn’t open the door she describes as “the silent motionless portal” indicates her preference for illusion over reality. Both characters often use literary models as in Strether’s “queer as fiction”, and Isabel’s “it’s just like a novel”.

The way both characters delay action is foregrounded when Osmond accuses Isabel of plotting against his own plot for Pansy when she has done nothing either to forward his plan or to construct her own. This is similar to the way Sarah, to Strether’s surprise, accuses him of sacrificing sisters and mothers, a scene which reveals the extent to which the “sense of narrative telos” in Bell’s words is foreign to Stether’s program of receptivity.

Finally however this ineffectual potentiality becomes a burden as Strether recognises the failures implied in maintaining a mental gap . Similarly Isabel recognises that unhappiness is “suffering as opposed to doing.” The choice Strether makes to cross to Marie de Vionnet’s side, like the decision Isabel takes to marry Osmond, is represnted as redeeming because as Isabel puts it “there was no plot, no snare, she had chosen.” Both characters seem to have freely decided their own future, and taken their life into their own hands.

However as Kettle notes, James’s novels, often described as dark comedies, can also be read as tragedies in that their subject is often the smashing of the bourgeois illusion of freedom in the consciousness of characters. This smashing of illusion comes in TA in the famous Lambinet scene where Strether realises the gap of non-doing he has maintained isn’t equalled on Chad and Marie’s side, and “the vision of the framed world collapses in face of loss it was constructed to conceal" as Ellman put it.

As Auchinloss notes POL is structured around a double conspiracy, Ralph’s inadvertent trapping of Isabel in a plot, and Osmond and Madame Merle’s machinations. That Isabel’s choice is revealed to be empty destroys her last illusion, that she had married with her eyes open. The novel of education suggested in the begin is undermined by the revelations of the plot, as what seems to be a comic resolution is mocked in Isabel’s mistaken belief that she has resolved her dilemma.

In TA, there is a similar subversion of the comic genre, and another realisation scene by a naive Jamesian character subjected to manipulation by others, as Strether see Jeanne and Chad and realises that what he saw as the truth is revealed to be one more hypothesis.

Both novels present bewilderment – the bewilderment of the main character, and with them the reader - as the essential condition for their plot, since ne as James says “if we were never bewildered there would never be a story to tell abt us”.

In TA and POL the focus on a single consciounsnes allowed James to use “bafflements for his complications and recognitions for his crisis” as Van Ghent puts it, i n a way which Spender argues revolutionised the method of presentation, altering emphasis from scene to the imaginative activity that leads to the scene making the scenes “symptoms not causes.”

The leading up to the recognition scene is presented in both novels not as an epiphany but as a process. All James later novels don’t arrive at the final valuation without going through a series of “visions and revisions” which depict the way that in actual life we “win through to our valuations.”

Bradbury argues that while James’s characters often remain unaware of truths plainly put, their suspension of judgement entails a liberating refusal to conclude. However as Sears argues, the basic pattern of the undoing of the deception of both protagonist and antagonist is always “after irrevocable harm has been done”.

In this sense, the victims share the burden of responsibility with their victimisers in a staggering self-deception which make the events of novel a cooperative venture in pain. Both novels entail a movement from a vista of multipled possibilities to a dead alley, a failure of alterity. As Bell notes, Isabel upon realising who Pansy is to Merle, quickly realises the illusion of freedom, of the error of faith in her own infinite possibility, and rejects Casper’s appeal to American sense of inexhaustible futurity.

Similalry in TA, in a central scene, Strether uses metaphors of naturalist inevitability to describe life as a tin mould, and the multivalent possibilities of Paris are revealed a the “illusion of freedom.” While Isabel’s promise to do something for Pansy seems to imply hope, that she too like Ralph is seeking the wild flowers in the niche of ruin, it also involves a recapitulation of Ralph’s imposition of design and plot on Isabel’s life, giving her the money which she hopes will give her freedom, but which ends up entrapping her in Osmond and Merle’s trap. In stepping into his place, Isabel seems to be poised to do the same for Pansy, taking over responsibility for her life.

In a similar way as Isabel’s future takes us full circle to the beginning and duplicates Ralph’s attempt to take care of her and give her freedom, in TA Strether’s rejection of Maria at the end has been read as a duplication of Chad’s casting off Marie. Both characters seem to have learned little from their experiences.

On the other hand, Bradbury argues that Strether’s refusal is not a casting off or abandoning, and is no way a parallel to Chad’s treatment of Marie. She describes it instead a refusal to sell the freedom of his imaginative experience, to exchange infinity for a fixed location. The scene with Maria in TA is included as Casper is included in POL, brining the novels to their traditional end only to subvert that end and to show its inadequacy. Like Strether, whose only compensation and only logic is that he has lost everything, Isabel’s gesture at the end is one of renunciation, but what she renounces as Bell puts it is “the temptation to renounce her own story”.

Both novels end “all comically, all tragically” like Maria, sighing it away. As Veeder notes, at the end, Isabel is suspended between departure and arrival, separation and commitment, and Henrietta’s “just you wait”, parallels Strether’s cumulating sentence “ then there we are”.

Both these ending statements seem to combine the characteristics of stillness and movement characteristic of the vanishing point. They are static recognitions of a state of being, at this moment. They look out to a horizon which is beyond the pages of the novel. Rather than a “losing of the story in the sand” as Henry James’ brother said of The Tragic Muse, there is a sense of the story continuing. As Van Ghent says the story doesn’t stop there, it goes out of the pages of the book, the portrait frame only holding the process of learning. This lack of conclusion, as Bakhtin notes, is characteristic of novelistic discourse, semantically open-ended because in contact with an ongoing reality. As Henry James says, the novels ultimately illustrate that the whole of anything is never told.

written: 2008
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