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Henry James is a Realist. In his works, he portrays the harsh truths of life through character observation. One of his greatest novels, The Portrait of A Lady, gives the reader a sullen yet intense experience of the life of Isabel Archer, and shows how this American woman ultimately comes to an understood sense of her inner-self and surrounding world. She is able to do so because of the duality of her character, which lies in her sense of the American spirit and European experience.
In his book, The Image of Europe in Henry James, Christof Wegelin writes that "Howells called James 'the inventor' of the 'international American girl'" (56). These American girl characters fundamentally possess a dual nature of innocence and knowledge; for James, the international American girl's "'innocence' is to be found invariably on the American, 'knowledge' on the European side" (59). In his own experiences, James found that American women, like his cousin Minny Temple, are somewhat "'innocent' since they illustrate the unawareness of life which struck him as 'the most general appearance' of his compatriots in Europe" (59).
However, the innocence of James' international girl is not to be seen as simple or stupid; instead it is to be seen as the lack of life knowledge which comes from the dual nature of the "divinely restless spirit" present in James' American women characters. To bring this spirit to the world, Isabel Archer's aunt, Mrs. Touchett, decides to bring Isabel to Europe to learn and "introduce her to the world. She [Isabel] thinks she knows a great deal of it-like most American girls; but like most American girls she is very much mistaken" (James, Portrait of A Lady 53). Isabel leaves America with a mistaken desire of being knowledgeable enough of the world to observe it with wisdom; a false sense of self which will eventually have to be confronted.
In the beginning of this novel, James points out that "Isabel was probably very liable to the sin of self-esteemâ€¦she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence that she was right" (59). Further, Isabel has "an unquenchable desire to think well of herself. She had a theory that it was only on this condition that life was worth living; that one should be one of the bestâ€¦should move in a realm of light, of natural wisdom" (59). Isabel wants to develop herself without conventional bounds, for she values her independent spirit, and thinks of herself as free and never wrong. No one else could ever know better for her. For Isabel, as long as she was doing what she felt was 'good' and right, the situations in her life would do justice. Unfortunately, James again throws in that "she had seen very little of the evil in the world, but she had seen women who lied and who tried to hurt each other. Seeing such things had quickened her high spirit; it seemed right to scorn them" (60).
Isabel is devoid of evil experience until she marries Osmond, a superficial and self-righteous expatriate living in Europe. In his essay, The Fearful Self, Tony Tanner explains that Isabel is drawn to him because of "his claim that he has renounced passional life and ordinary human attachments to pursue his high-minded study, his 'taste,' echoes something in Isabel" (71). Isabel sees in Osmond a romantic premonition of life that includes the highest levels of intellectual wisdom and art; her restless innocence telling her that this man is the good way towards 'natural wisdom' and knowledge of life. However, Osmond's "ambition was not to please the world, but to please himself by exciting the world's curiosity and then declining to satisfy it. It made him feel great to play the world a trick" (341). Everything in the world to him is like a show, for "everything that he does is pose" (Auchincloss, Reading James 65).
Unlike what Isabel believes, Osmond does not care about people and pleasing the world. Instead, he cares about spiritualizing the material things in life in order to put on a dark cabaret of falsities, and uses people as props in his performances. The grandest of props he seeks out is Isabel. She doesn't listen to the loving advice of her friends and family and marries Osmond, for she naturally feels she is never wrong. This brings out the tragic flaw of James' American girl: she is not a heroine of happy endings. Rather, she is a portrait of how romantic expectations, confronted with harsh reality and evil, fuse the dual natures of her character into a realized sense of self.
Ironically, it is through her evil experiences of married life with Osmond that give Isabel this fusion and realization. James writes of their marriage:
She had taken the first steps in the purest confidence, and then she had suddenly found the infinite vista of a multiplied life to be a dark, narrow alley, with a dead wall at the end. Instead of leading to high places of happiness, from which the world would seem to lie below one, so that one could look down with a sense of exaltation and advantage, and judge and choose and pity, it led rather downward and earthward, into realms of restriction and depression, where the sound of other lives, easier and freer, was heard as from above, and served the deepen the feeling of failure. It was her deep distrust of her husband-this was what darkened the world. (366)
Isabel finally grasps how her romantic views of life and happiness, and seeing those wants being fulfilled by marrying Osmond, was a tragic mistake on her part. The innocent, free-spirited American girl in Europe is confronted by the true consequences of life: living under one's own suppositions and philosophies mockingly puts one's self into the conventions the person was living to avoid. Expecting everything to work out in life perfectly inevitably set one's self up for disaster.
At this moment in the novel, Isabel's free spirit comes to terms with this present experience of error, an experience of realistic knowledge, and therefore allowing these two qualities to connect, giving her a clearer picture of life and her own self. Tanner explains:
It is only through choice and commitment that we can find out what we are. In this sense error is also discovery. Isabel has to close with Osmond in order to arrive at a deeper knowledge of her self, of her distorted values, of her egotism, and of the real pain and cruelty of life. By marrying Osmond she suffers in good earnestâ€¦Her consolation-and it is the supreme one in James-is truer vision. (74)
This clearer picture of life can be thought of as a full life for Isabel, where life is not mere "activity, but consists of experience had and understood, experience appropriated to oneself and made into knowledge. Experience missed-rejected by oneself or withheld by others-and experience misunderstood, perverted, is what is bad" (Wegelin 68). Before coming to terms with her error, Isabel goes through life by "coldly consulting her theories, her imaginative ideals, her book-fed romanticisms" (Tanner 74). She made decisions and judgments based on idealistic formulas with no sense of the practical or real consequences of those calculated decisions.
Suffering in the face of her consequences and depressed world around her, Isabel transforms her suffering into a keener knowledge of her moral needs. Now that she has experienced evil and deception, she is able to live the "full life" because of a grown self-awareness of her own morals and morality itself. She can live her life liberated from distorted values and deceptive ploys because she now has the emotional intelligence to fully understand how experiences attached to opportunities are not always beautiful and pleasant.
With that, Isabel uses her suffering to her advantage. She feels a freedom of responsibility within herself to not let her suffering corrupt her anymore. Instead of leaving Osmond and her life with him for good, she returns to England one last time to say good-bye to her dying friend, Ralph, and tells him: "I never thanked you-I never spoke-I never was what I should be! ...What must you have thought of me? Yet how could I know? I never knew, and I only know to-day because there are people less stupid than I" (James, Portrait 486). She had to tell Ralph of her self-realization before he dies in order to fulfill one of her moral needs, and to come to terms with the old ghost of her still lurking in Gardencourt.
She also had to talk with him about her renewed sense of being because Ralph was the only person who understood what she was trying to do in marrying Osmond, even though he thought it a bad decision. For Ralph tells her:
I always understood, though it was so strange-so pitiful. You wanted to look at life for yourself-but you were not allowed; you were punished for your wish. You were ground in the very mill of the conventional. (489)
Having closure with the only person who understood her inexperienced premonitions and their consequences gives Isabel strength to live with a clear sense of the dutiful self she was trying to become throughout the whole novel.
She will return to Osmond, yet with a dutiful sense of individual freedom. She can live with her flawed life, but it will no longer corrupt her moral compass into wrong directions and decisions. With her renewed sense of self and the world around her, she is prepared to see evil and good with the wisdom to make intelligent decisions based on true experience. This Jamesian American girl's duality of character gave her the opportunity to combine her American free spirit, with her experiences in Europe, into a realistic sense of wisdom of herself and the world around her through experiencing that one moment. The suffering and wickedness she became aware of, and accepting the consequences of her decisions, ultimately allows her new self to live out the rest of her life free of deception and dead romanticisms, but not free of evil and truth.