View Full Version : An infinite hope that she should never do anything wrong

03-23-2011, 02:48 AM
Do we finally see Isabel Archer grimly paying penance for making the foolish decision to marry a socially too astute Gilbert Osmond?

Mercifully, I come to The Portrait of a Lady after reading the three late and difficult novels, although all three are truly wonderful. An easy and often humorous read, I would recommend this early novel to anyone wishing to check out Henry James.

James tells us early in The Portrait of a Lady that:

The girl had a certain nobleness of imagination which rendered her a good many services and played her a great many tricks. She spent half her time in thinking of beauty and bravery and magnanimity; she had a fixed determination to regard the world as a place of brightness, of free expansion, of irresistible action: she held it must be detestable to be afraid or ashamed. She had an infinite hope that she should never do anything wrong.

In the closing pages, I'd like to think that the same Isabel Archer begs the irrepressible Bostonian, Caspar Goodwood, her satanic tempter in the wilderness, "Do me the greatest kindness of all...leave me alone".

In the beginning, Isabel leaves Albany for Europe so that Mrs Touchett can "introduce her to the world". But the sight of Europe fails, in the end, to satisfy. Isabel yearns to discover life, on her own terms. She marries Mr Osmond!

In matters of opinion she had had her own way, and it had led her into a thousand ridiculous zigzags. At moments she discovered she was grotesquely wrong, and then she treated herself to a week of passionate humility. After this she held her head higher than ever again; for it was of no use, she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself. She had a theory that it was only under this provision life was worth living; that one should be one of the best, should be conscious of a fine organisation (she couldn't help knowing her organisation was fine), should move in a realm of light

The deceased Ralph, along with his father and his mother, had performed her good service. Lord Warburton had been a rich and famous distraction. Henrietta Stackpole entertainment. Caspar Goodwood - strong, intelligent and romantic - represents for Isabel what might have been, long ago.

It seems to me, that Isabel returns to Rome, to Pansy and Oswald, to suffer, "in a realm of light". Isabel lives! A paradoxically glorious ending buoyed by "an infinite hope"?