Saturday, August 10, 2013

Woman stays in a miserable marriage? Are you kidding?

The Portrait of a LadyThe Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This storyline doesn't hold much water in today's culture: a woman who ultimately stays in a miserable marriage because she recognizes that marriage is more than than the relative happiness she derives from it. Though it doesn't hold much water, Isabel Archer nonetheless does the right thing.

In the end, Isabel holds to a high view of marriage. This does not fly in our current culture. “He was not one of the best husbands [understatement], but that didn’t alter the case. Certain obligations were involved in the very fact of marriage, and were quite independent of the quantity of enjoyment extracted from it” (ch. 55, p. 849). However, while a high view of marriage is embraced, what is not investigated is why marriage should have a high view. There is scarce mention of religion. The clearest statement that I recall is Isabel’s dislike of the authority of the Church (in relation to Pansy’s placement in a convent for a time).

Throughout the book, various individuals are interested to see what Isabel will do. The people around her are fascinated by her and get a certain enjoyment out of observing the progress of her life. The reader himself is brought in to this anticipation as well, wondering what Isabel will do with her life, and then, when she marries, what she will do in that state.

The book deals in high culture and sophisticated circles. The main characters express themselves well and are reserved in their conversations, careful to communicate what they mean, careful not to offend, careful not to run off at the mouth. They are guarded. This differs significantly from our culture, where athletes and reality game show contestants are alternately boastful and weepy, talking about how they will definitely win and sharing their hard-luck stories. We wear our emotions on our sleeves, and we are weakened and pathetic as a result, and our boasting is out-and-out false. How does one know one will win in most contests? The facts don’t typically point to an indefatigable domination.

But though the book deals in civilized circles, at the base, there are nonetheless age-old sordid sins—Osmond’s greed, his extra-marital affair with Madame Merle, their overweening pride and contempt. As civilized as people like to appear, tawdriness lurks in even the most civilized of hearts.

Below are quotes that describe the withering effect Isabel's husband had on her, an effect that unfortunately is not unique to fictional husbands.

“Besides this, her short interview with Osmond half an hour ago was a striking example of his faculty for making everything whither that he touched, spoiling everything for her that he looked at.” (ch. 42, p. 616)

“It had come gradually—it was not till the first year of their life together, so admirably intimate at first, had closed that she had taken the alarm. Then the shadows had begun to gather; it was as if Osmond deliberately, almost malignantly, had put the lights out one by one.” (ch. 42, p. 618)

“Under all his culture, his cleverness, his amenity, under his good-nature, his facility, his knowledge of life, his egotism lay hidden like a serpent in a bank of flowers…. She was to think of him as he thought of himself—as the first gentleman in Europe…. It implied a sovereign contempt for every one but some three or four very exalted people whom he envied, and for everything in the world but half a dozen ideas of his own.” (ch. 42, pp. 624-25)

Story Summary
Isabel Archer wants to experience life on her own before she even considers the question of marriage, but the issue is forced upon her by two ardent suitors, Caspar Goodwood of America, and Lord Warburton of England.  The youngest of three sisters when her parents die (thought not a child at the time), her aunt, the unusual Mrs. Touchett finds her and decides to take her to Europe, whereupon she meets her uncle, an American banker who prospered in that business in England, and cousin, the sickly Ralph Touchett.  She comes to love both.  As death closes in on his beloved father, Ralph persuades him to split his inheritance with his cousin Isabel.  He wants to give Isabel a chance in the world to follow her dreams.  Mr. Touchett agrees, and Isabel finds herself an heiress with 70,000 pounds.
Isabel then leaves Gardencourt (the home of Mr. Touchett and Ralph—Mrs. Touchett resides in Florence most of the year though still married to Mr. Touchett; she’s an odd duck) and travels with her aunt to Florence and also spends time in Rome.  Before leaving America the prosperous industrialist Caspar Goodwood failed to make Isabel his wife.  Before leaving Gardencourt, Lord Warburton failed in the same attempt, both smitten by her unusual and original mind.  Both renew their proposals throughout the book.  But Isabel ends up marrying Gilbert Osmond, an American widower who lives in Italy with his daughter Pansy.  Her friend Madame Merle, a friend of Mrs. Touchett’s, is very much responsible for putting the two together, over the top of the protests of Mrs. Touchett and Ralph.
The marriage is good for a year, but when Gilbert discovers he cannot dominate his wife intellectually, his love turns cold and brutal.  He’s never physically abusive, but there is no love, and there is always criticism and contempt.  Her friendship with Madame Merle, and she learns that Pansy is really Merle’s child with Osmond, a well-guarded secret.  Warburton, Goodwood, and Ralph all ache for Isabel, the former two also aching for themselves and often venturing to see about rescuing her.
Things come to a new rupture between Isabel and Gilbert when she learns Ralph is close to death in England.  Her husband forbids her to go because he despises Ralph (and all her friends).  She goes anyway, and she is encouraged in one way or another by her friend Henrietta Stackpole, here sister-in-law the Countess, her aunt, and her cousin to leave Gilbert.  Finally, Goodwood himself attempts to take matters into his own hands by practically forcing her to yield to his proposal of marriage.  Tempted along the way, Goodwood’s proposal helps clarify her duty, and she returns to Rome after Ralph’s death, back to her husband.
Along the way the reader learns that Osmond is interested primarily in Isabel’s money, that Merle is also interested in her money, trying to set her lover up with money as well as for her daughter Pansy (who doesn’t know Merle is her mother).  Had Ralph not persuaded his father to leave and inheritance for Isabel, she never would have come to his miserable marriage, and so he berates himself for that.

View all my reviews

No comments: