The Fearful Self Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1965)
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The feeling which Isabel Archer most consistently experiences is fear. She is frightened by Warburton’s offer, of Caspar Goodwood’s persistence, and Gilbert Osmond’s anger; she is frightened of sexual passion, of her unexpected wealth, of her ‘freedom’; but beneath all these specific apprehensions there is, she admits, a deeper, radical fear — fear of herself. Seeing that it is a self which can misread Osmond so disastrously and make such a profoundly mistaken choice then, we may say, she has good grounds for her fear. But her fear, her error, and her final resolution are, it seems to me, crucial stages on a psychic journey which forms the very heart of the novel. This journey is the journey of an uncommitted, undefined self which sets out to find the right house to live in and the right partner to live with. A house — because the undefined self needs a defining shape: a partner — because the self can only realise what it is, by seeing itself reflected in the chosen and respected eyes of another; in selecting a partner it is selecting the gaze and regard which will assure it of its own reality and value. Putting it very crudely, Isabel Archer chooses the wrong house and the wrong partner. It is the full nature of this error — and her subsequent actions — that I wish to explore. But first I should like to make it clear that if I tend to treat characters, events and buildings as being ‘emblematic’ (Quentin Anderson’s word), this does not mean that I am insensitive to the more realistic qualities of the novel which are praised, for example, by F. R. Leavis in The Great Tradition.
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