Collecting as Ethos and Technique in 'The Portrait of a Lady.' (Henry James)

By Donahue, Peter | Studies in American Fiction, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Collecting as Ethos and Technique in 'The Portrait of a Lady.' (Henry James)


Donahue, Peter, Studies in American Fiction


Collections are the artistic creation of self out of self, part of the connection of past and present and the hope of a future. --Susan M. Pearce

While critics have paid much attention to the importance of the fine arts in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, the cultural and psychological phenomenon of collecting remains overlooked in the novel. In The Museum World of Henry James, Adeline R. Tintner painstakingly catalogues, and assesses the effects of, particular works of art as they appear in James's novels and stories. Tintner tends primarily to be concerned with the "symbolic insertion of significant works of art to dramatize a crisis" in James's fiction.(1) Yet Henry James was as much intrigued by the gesture of collecting as he was by the objects collected. James's emphasis on collecting in The Portrait of a Lady focuses the cultural and psychological significance of the act on the novel's characters. But it also contributes much to the special form of realism James developed in the early stage of his career as marked by The Portrait of a Lady.

Although the phenomenon of collecting in Portrait has received no critical attention, except for condemnations of Gilbert Osmond as a collector of people and objects alike, such has not been the case for James's later novel, The Spoils of Poynton. It is as if the ideas on collecting that James was developing implicitly in Portrait reached their most explicit expression in Spoils. In both novels what is at stake is not mere possession of objects, but rather the self as it attempts to possess. Paul B. Armstrong points out that for Mrs. Gereth in Spoils, "the process of objectifying herself through her possessions is all-important to her own sense of who she is."(2) Such self-objectification is also part of what Isabel attempts through her marriage to Osmond in Portrait. In his Preface to The Spoils of Poynton, James acknowledges that the "real centre" of the novel, "the citadel of the interest," is "the Things, always the splendid Things."(3) James conceives of Fleda Vetch, says Armstrong, only because the things, the spoils of Poynton, "could not function as the work's central consciousness although they deserve that role."(4) Similarly, in Portrait, Isabel becomes the thing, the spoils, that functions as the novel's central consciousness. Collecting itself serves both as the characters' central motivation and as James's modus operandi in creating the novel.

Some of the post-Civil War historical and cultural contexts for collecting as it plays out in The Portrait of a Lady, as well as in James's developing realism, are familiar. The Civil War had left the United States struggling for a sense of national self-definition. For many leisure-class Americans--whose postbellum role was not imposed upon them by the land and industries to be worked in war-ravaged America--there was perhaps an even greater sense of the need to define themselves as Americans heading toward the fin de siecle. Given secure financial means, one way to acquire a sense of self was the conspicuous acquisition and collection of things, securing for wealthy Americans the kind of status previously associated with aristocratic Europeans.

According to Susan M. Pearce, collecting--especially since Darwin--has been used as a means to gather evidence of one's advanced place on the evolutionary scale.(5) It was not until the nineteenth century, with the advent of large national museums in conjunction with a burgeoning middle class, that collecting as a means of national identity formation began to reach cult status. John Berger points out that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the aristocracy typically commissioned works of arts depicting themselves (and their possessions) as the central subject for the purpose of self-reflexively affirming their own aristocratic status.(6) Addressing this same tendency, the cultural anthropologist James Clifford cites C. B. MacPherson's analysis of Western "possessive individualism," tracing the "emergence of an ideal self as owner: the individual surrounded by accumulated property and goods. …

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