Isabel Archer

Isabel Archer

Isabel Archer

Isabel Archer


-- The only major collection of criticism on widely studied fictional figures from world literature

-- Brings together a diverse array of the finest critical writing from around the world

-- Includes Harold Bloom's essay "The Analysis of Character" and introductory essays on title characters


There is a double tradition of fictional representation that leads on to a culmination in Isabel Archer, the superb heroine of what I would judge to be Henry James 's masterwork, The Portrait of a Lady. One strand is that of the English heroines of the Protestant Will, commencing with Samuel Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe. Jane Austen's crucial protagonists carry Clarissa's line forward, until the English novel is distinguished by another eminence in George Eliot's Middlemarch, where Dorothea Brooke is clearly the legatee of Clarissa and of Austen's heroines. Though James was affected by George Eliot, his Isabel Archer owes more than he perhaps realized to the grandest characters of his American precursor, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter and Hilda in The Marble Faun anticipate elements of conflict in Isabel Archer, modalities that place intricate detours in the triumphant path of the Protestant Will, with its heroic drive towards accepting the esteem of others only to the degree that the heroine's self-esteem confers a saving esteem upon them. This curious kind of shared solipsism is subverted by the American religion of Emerson's self-reliance, a faith held (with subtle differences) both by Hester Prynne and by Isabel Archer. Isabel, truly "the heiress of all the ages," has become something close to the archetype of all those American young women, in life or in fiction, who become doom-eager through their transcendent (and transcendental) idealism, their need to find a total self-realization in their existence. Daughters of Emerson, even as James was in some sense his son, they demand victory, even as they suffer the great defeats of tragic marriages to inadequate men.

Richard Poirier remarks that Isabel's rejection of Warburton is a refusal of conventionalized society, and so reflects James's own societal freedom, both as person and as novelist. The novel's deepest irony is that James's self-portrait as a lady requires Isabel to choose a husband, and indeed requires her to choose badly; Osmond is humanly inferior on every count to Warburton and to Ralph Touchett, and even to the passionately obtuse American, Caspar Goodwood. Osmond, as I have ventured elsewhere, is a parody both of an Emersonian transcendentalist, and of a Paterian aesthete. The parody became much sharper when James revised the . . .

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