The Nature of True Virtue: Theology, Psychology, and Politics in the Writings of Henry James, Sr., Henry James, Jr., and William James

By James Duban | Go to book overview

9
"Invraisemblance" and True Virtue in
The Ambassadors and The Portrait of a Lady

IN THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY AND IN THE AMBASSADORS, TRUE VIRTUE PROVES PHEnomenalistic. It does so, first, in the mere appearance of virtue contrived by Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond to deceive Isabel Archer and, second, in the pantomime of virtue contrived by Chad Newsome and Madame de Vionnet to dupe Lewis Lambert Strether. Strether erroneously believes in the "'virtuous'" (A, 165) nature of Chad's and Vionnet's relationship— indeed, in "this phenomenon" of the "established recognition of the rare intimacy of Chad's association with her" (A, 288). On the basis of that misinformed impression of virtue, Strether comes to insist that Chad remain with Vionnet rather than abandon her for some other woman or return home to marry Mamie Pocock, the sister of Chad's brother-in-law, Jim, with whom Chad would direct a burgeoning family business. Beyond misconceiving the "nature" of Chad's and Vionnet's ostensible virtue, Strether succumbs to the manipulation of Chad and Vionnet. They cleverly exploit Strether's presumptuous claim to virtue when he fancies that he is disinterestedly sacrificing his own future prospects at Woollett to "save" Vionnet. James scholars who commend Strether in effect simply perpetuate his delusions about his benevolence toward Chad and Vionnet.1 By contrast, I argue that Chad and his lover exploit Strether's self-flattering views about disinterestedness, and that they do so in such a manner as to dispatch him back to America without his even suspecting this further and final act of deception practiced upon him.

Just as Strether persistently displays a misplaced belief in his own righteous benevolence, so too, in The Portrait of a Lady, does Isabel Archer succumb to the wiles of Gilbert Osmond. He takes advantage of her wish to appear benevolent, and he flatters her into believing that she will act virtuously by endowing him, a supposedly disinterested aesthete, with her hand and fortune. Isabel eventually comes to understand her folly and returns to Osmond to live a sadder, wiser, and more dignified life than that offered her by the equally domineering Caspar Goodwood.2 Strether, on the other

-164-

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