But when she lets Caspar take her in his arms, and kiss her, the burning reality of "the act of possession" arouses her old American fears and resistances. From the very depths of an overwhelming emotional turmoil, she clutches at the idealistic metaphysics which explain its reality away: all "was but a subjective fact, as the metaphysicians say; the confusion, the noise of waters, all the rest of it, were in her own swimming head" (p. 591). For a moment he had "forced open her set teeth" and "lifted her off her feet." But feeling herself "sink and sink ... she seemed to beat with her feet, in order to catch herself" (pp. 589-590).

To her restored persona, the very help he offers has the "taste ... of something potent, acrid, and strange" (p. 589). Taken for an aggressive act of possession, his kiss releases the drawn bow of her resistances and drives her with the "swift keen movement of a feathered arrow," 65 straight back to the fate from which he struggled to save her:

His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession.... But when darkness returned she was free. She never looked about her... She only darted from the spot.... She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path. (p. 591)

Gripped by a force stronger than either he or she can exert, Isabel turns back to her husband's anaesthetic prison where, like "two of the saints in the great picture in the convent chapel," they could "turn their painted heads and shake them at each other" Platonically ever after. Isabel calls her flight from intimacy, freedom. But if flight from light, from facts, from her own larger nature be freedom—what is fate? Caspar calls her sacrifice a horror, a funeral, an atrocity. So it is, but so it was predestined to be by the only dazzling persona a woman could wear in "the heroic age of New England life." 66 James gives the impression of having known few kinds of women intimately, but he has evidently known intimately Isabel Archer's idealistic type. We see the process of her history; we see how it marches from step to step to its self-sacrificing termination, and we see that it could not have been otherwise. It is a case of the ascetic passion for noble martyrdom, for self-possession's highest and most difficult demands; of an intense and complex imagination haunted and sublimated almost in the germ; and finding dangers and humiliations in the most unlikely places. It is a case of Emersonian self-reliance and other-defiance being pressed back upon itself with a force which makes the self-denial Emerson wished to avert inevitable.


NOTES
1
Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, in The Shock of Recognition, E. Wilson, ed. ( New York, 1955), vol. I, p. 511.
2
Henry James. The Portrait of a Lady (Penguin Books, 1968), pp. 41, 307ff., 300, 304, 63, 150, 505.

-149-

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Isabel Archer
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Major Literary Characters *
  • Isabel Archer *
  • Contents *
  • The Analysis of Character Harold Bloom ix
  • Editor's Note xv
  • Introduction 1
  • Critical Extracts 5
  • Henry James 5
  • Horace E. Scudder 8
  • Margaret Oliphant 10
  • Henry James 15
  • Cornelia Pulsifer Kelley 19
  • Yvor Winters 23
  • Edward Sackville West 24
  • Graham Greene 28
  • F. R. Leavis 32
  • Richard Chase 37
  • William H. Gass 41
  • Richard Poirier 45
  • Leon Edel 51
  • Dorothea Krook 57
  • Laurence Bedwell Holland 60
  • Manfred Mackenzie 64
  • Lisa Appignanesi 72
  • Ronald Wallace 76
  • Peter Jones 80
  • Critical Essays 91
  • Tony Tanner the Fearful Self 91
  • Annette Niemtzow Marriage and the New Woman in the Portrait of a Lady 104
  • Notes 117
  • Nina Baym Revision and Thematic Change in the Portrait of a Lady 119
  • Notes 129
  • Zephyra Porat Transcendental Idealism and Tragic Realism in the Portrait of a Lady 131
  • Notes 149
  • Jonathan Freedman James, Pater, and the Dreaming of Aestheticism 152
  • Notes 163
  • Stephanie A. Smith the Delicate Organisms and Theoretic Tricks of Henry James 164
  • Notes 179
  • William Veeder the Feminine Orphan and the Emergent Master 181
  • Notes 199
  • Contributors 203
  • Bibliography 205
  • Acknowledgments 211
  • Index 213
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