Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Recognizing "False Notes": Musical Rhetoric in the Portrait of a Lady

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Recognizing "False Notes": Musical Rhetoric in the Portrait of a Lady

Article excerpt

Drawing upon studies of the Medieval and Renaissance view of music as a mediator between the self and the cosmos, this essay explores the way that James uses and adapts such analogies to a social context in dramatizing Isabel's evolution from innocence and dependence to experience and autonomy in The Portrait of a Lady.

From earliest times, philosophers have believed that music possesses a special affinity with both human beings and the cosmos. An example of the former, as noted by John Block Friedman in his study of medieval depictions of Orpheus, can be seen in the observation of Aristides Quintiianus that "because the first form of the body was a combination of strings and breath--lyre and flute--man is most sympathetic to the music of these instruments" (82). Manifesting the latter view is the old notion of "the music of the spheres," which Jamie James recently adapted to subsequent scientific theories in his 1993 study subtitled "Music, Science, and the Natural Order of the Universe." Closely connecting the two concepts, in turn, is literature, as evidenced by the Romantic poets' use of the "aeolian harp" metaphor and in criticism by John Hollander's discussion of the mediating function of music in his classic 1961 study entitled Untuning the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry 1500-1700.

Although Hollander implies that the tendency to equate human beings and musical instruments began increasingly to disappear during the 19th and 20th centuries, in Henry James we have a novelist who not only draws such analogies but also extends their range of application. James, of course, is renowned for his pioneering attempts to make prose fiction an art form in its own right, and significantly in The Art of the Novel he specifically enlists music in describing his formula for success: "The interest was to be raised to its pitch and yet the elements to be kept in their key" (56). Similarly, if James is noted for his recourse to metaphors from architecture, sculpture and painting as a way of suggesting both the psychology and aesthetic/social sophistication of his fictional characters--with The Portrait of a Lady providing a definitive example--we should also bear in mind that central to this novel is the art of deception, so that while the pictorial arts do indeed function as the foreground, it could also be argued that it is through musical referents that James conveys the deeper import of his intent. First published serially, then in volume form in 1881, and revised and republished in 1908 as part of the New York edition of James's major works, The Portrait of a Lady charts the maturation of the heroine, Isabel Archer, an American orphan and innocent who as a result of a substantial inheritance from her Uncle wishes to realize herself fully and to live life finely and nobly, only to end up as the deceived wife of a sterile European dilettante, Gilbert Osmond. Thematically, the novel is designed as an exploration of the nature of freedom, self-determination, and responsibility--issues played out in a tension between the musica mundana and the music of the spheres.

While the presence of a musical component in James's fiction has not gone unnoticed by James critics--Kermit Vanderbilt, for example, has discussed the role of music in two of James's short stories--in the case of The Portrait of a Lady much of the discussion tends to be vague, and closer attention is needed both to the deliberateness and pervasiveness of James's recourse to musical analogies and the way that they function in the novel. Thus in the following essay I will begin by briefly noting the way that representative critics have discussed the musical component in Portrait and then look at key textual variants between the original 1881 text and the 1908 New York edition with a view to showing how James purposely expanded and emphasized the musical component when he revised the novel. Subsequently I will provide a close analysis of Portrait, demonstrating how the musical referents constitute a "rhetoric" that James uses to direct our understanding of Isabel's plight and developing consciousness. …

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