Isabel Archer’s life, or better, what we get to know about her through her peculiar biographer, is a struggle between possibility and limitation, insight and blindness, art and life. Two discreet turning points, two uncanny lighthouses, mark her quest: the two moments when a ghost is mentioned in the text. For from the very beginning of the story we know that Isabel is, because of her personality, upbringing and sense of destiny, ready and awaiting her path to open up before her, her quest to be displayed. At first, she sets out beautifully, even fairytale-like, full of possibilities, and yet blind. Then a desire orientates her: she wants to see the ghost of Gardencourt –with all that this implies: as her cousin Ralph tells her, knowledge is necessary, in particular, experience of suffering, and of having made to suffer, to see it-. Eventually, nearing the end of the story and four years later, she indeed sees the ghost. A new direction is pointed out to her by this vision and the new, revealing knowledge it brings to her. However, as to where this direction points at, the reader is left blank. We can only hint at what her outcome will be, depending on Isabel’s double-fold nature: her opposing but in fact not contradictory tendencies, a positive desire for happiness, and a negative one for suffering. Which will be the leading force from now on? Because, which eye sees further? For Isabel has set out as if on man’s universal voyage. Her eyes are fixed both on herself and on the distant line of her horizon. As some critics have mentioned, hers is the quest for a meaningful life, for the enlargement of consciousness, for knowledge, understanding, and experience.
However, before going any further, we should determine what James understood for some terms. In “The art of fiction” he says :”Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative… it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations”; and later on he indicates that to perceive experience at the most one should be “of the people on whom nothing is lost.” As to his concept of “consciousness”, he is influenced by both his brother William James and his fellow pragmatic Charles Peirce and their understanding of individual experience. The former considers consciousness as the nexus or addition of moments of being, while the latter has the notion of an evolving consciousness, in the process of becoming a “true” or “ideal” version of the self. I find both these processes, the accumulative and the evolving, taking place in the novel, and standing for Isabel’s cognition. The turning point between the one and the other is a mere spark, the one that sets chapter 42 on fire. The lightning of the spark takes place in the eye, at the moment when the all pervading sight, the looking on, the admiring and contemplating, the passive, collecting, reaping, accumulative eye that has dominated the novel till now, suddenly transcends the surface and becomes clear insight, active comprehension, pushing consciousness a step deeper.
I believe Isabel very much to be like a contemporary female Ulysses, epically crossing the sea towards an unknown world, which is rooted in a past far before her but that she believes will complete her and reinforce her sense of her own freedom and independence. Here is James’ international theme: shallow water Americans confronted with the rich hues and shadows of grandmother Europe. Hers is a frail vessel, made of her very liberal education -so liberal and unconventional it would be considered as nearly unexisting by the surrounding society-, not to mention yet all the self-acquired aesthetic, philosophical, and literary concepts she lives on. In addition, her sails are made of these spider-web silken threads. Isabel is, besides, apparently so self-confident –maybe just self-imbued- she takes long in becoming aware that her sails are filled by the breath of foreboding gods, all those satellite characters that manipulate her, from Mrs. Touchett to Osmond.
Having come to the “eye”, one is reminded that the novel we are reading is, in fact, a portrait. This is not casual. Moreover, this leads us by the hand to a world James knew well and was very much inspired by: the art of painting. References to and comparisons between literary and visual arts are to be found in most of James’ critical writings, including “The Art of Fiction” and the very preface to “The Portrait of a Lady”.
Pictures establish with their contemplator a game of mirrors that I believe interested him much. Though now eternally still, once they were a living scene, watched closely by a living painter, who attempted constricting into -enhancing by- a canvas the life he saw and felt. Naturally, painting can only represent life two-dimensionally, while literature has the advantage of representing time. Time is, in fact, real depth. It should be remembered that at the time the novel was written some of the greatest impressionist paintings, in particular those of Édouard Manet, with whom I find James to have a particular resemblance, had already been made. Reality had never been so real before, though only an impression. Nevertheless, there is no greater truth than the one expressed by pure and faithful impression, by the vague movement implied by its vague stillness, representing, thus, time. I believe that what is most striking of Isabel’s portrait is the fact that it benefits both from purely pictorial elements and purely literary ones. It possesses the stillness of an impressionist picture; in fact, we see Isabel as if posing for her many onlookers, including James himself and the reader, while she looks inwards into herself; and it shows the revolving movement of history, life whirling round her. However, it must be noted that the various plot blanks to be found in the text refer to those instances that would have implied greater movement or action: her travels, her possibly more active first years of marriage and the death of her only child. While delving deep into her life, Isabel remains disturbingly quiet, so that the game of mirrors can take place. Moreover, it is precisely in that strange stillness –the same stillness characteristic of a ghost- that we see and understand the most, for one of the mirrors might eventually show us a glimpse of ourselves. Her quest for knowledge is as much hers as ours and we recognize in her impulse and in her blindness our own, in fact, everybody’s. The fact her ultimate fate is left out implies we are allowed to make our own reading of it.
Well then, Isabel’s story (Ulysses’ sea) is her frame, in the centre of which she lives and quietly, strangely strives, very much like Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe”: a woman shown bare to the eye of her onlookers (the two men in the picture and the public, to whom she straightforwardly directs her eyes as if unaware of her nakedness). By the way, impressionist painters were, for the first time in the history of art, trying to solve the problem of how to integrate a human figure in a landscape (the ultimate, pictorial frame) without any of these two elements subordinating its identity to the other. According to experts, it was to be a woman painter, Berthe Morrisot, the one to achieve this integration more successfully. However, her tendency is to show only one figure in a landscape, for more would break this fragile equilibrium. This seems to be a lesson rightly learned by James, who centres the novel on Isabel’s, and only Isabel’s, consciousness.
It is not until the first lighthouse, the first ghost appears, though only mentioned, that we start perceiving the ordeal Isabel has taken upon herself. In fact, not even she knows it before, nor is she, when deciding on it, aware of how far her life will become involved in her determination to follow the track of wisdom to its very end. For that is the focus of her apparently whimsical desire: to see the ghost of Gardencourt. She becomes enamoured with it from the moment it is first mentioned, though it is at the time only a metaphor. This ghost becomes the symbol of knowledge, being knowledge a synonym for experience, depth, consciousness. Although this ghost is at first but offhandedly mentioned, its transcendence grows along the way. When it becomes embodied in the person of Ralph, just deceased, its nature has changed so much we cannot take it lightly any more. Its horror is full. Isabel has been granted her desire, now she knows, or better, now she is ready to start knowing and acting on the premises of this knowledge. Wisdom illuminates and hits her in the face. The story closes with this fulfilment; any continuation would be quite another matter.
As to why James has chosen to link knowledge, possibility, and insight, what Isabel is pursuing, to the figure of a ghost, is difficult to grasp, but I believe it to be due to several reasons that I will try to explain.
In the first place, James often dealt with ghosts in his writings. They are real ones or metaphorical ones, but all of them cause contradictory impressions. On the one hand, they are terrifying and characters recoil from them; on the other hand, they are fascinating and inevitably attractive. The reason for this is they represent knowledge withheld: words unsaid, meanings hidden, depth veiled. Silence meaningful.Furthermore, a ghost is a supernatural entity whose existence can be doubted, and is susceptible of being associated with all that is impossible or unreasonable. The fact that a woman should desire to attain deep knowledge of life was, in the last quarter of the 19th century, unexpected and unusual, to say the least. Social conventions ruled over life. But transgression lures Isabel, and she does not feel very strongly the pulling down of convention as her education has been rather deviated from the common, having been left mostly to her own fancy.
Besides, a ghost is, to some extent, a fantastic being. Its intruding in the realistic setting of the novel causes an uncanny disturbance. However, it can also be felt as opening a door to a greater whole, the realm of both the possible and the impossible, the usual and the extraordinary. And Isabel feels herself in want of something extraordinary to match her gifted sensitivity.
This need is closely linked to her philosophical and aesthetic concepts, which, in their turn, have to do with her literary sense of life. Her dream-fed youth has given her the sense of being the heroine of some quixotesque or gothic adventure. As I have said before, she starts off in a fairytale-like manner: she is poor, unconventionally educated, alone, detached –as misunderstood- to some extent from her surrounding world, and unexpectedly there comes her aunt to take her along. From this moment on two very different worlds are to be in tension: the moral/aesthetic universe Isabel insists on inhabiting and the world of means where all other characters most naturally live. These two worlds cannot come to terms; they are too alien to each other. However, they must make do. Therefore, they translate each other’s features into their own language: Isabel becomes an aesthetic, though slippery, object of desire and convenience, something meant to be possessed or admiredly watched, and the others become aesthetic models to be imitated by the disorientated but determined Isabel.
In conclusion, self-creation is the theme of the novel, Isabel’s aim, and the reason for her voyaging the turbulent, dark sees of life. In this quest, she is necessarily alone, and it is quite dramatical to attend to how even her biographer keeps his distance from her. Maybe he happens to know that, to some extent, she is bound to fail. The dichotomy between freedom and need lay heavily on any woman. Playing with such a double-edged knife, one is bound to get cut, even when endowed with whatever is supposed to assure success: beauty, wealth, imagination, independence, and passion. Knowledge is not to be trusted and when one pretends to live as an outcast from society’s rules, one is made to pay its due.
As a reader I confront her tragic destiny –the one Isabel, in fact, has always desired for herself in her dark, romantic way- not without sympathy. She is a peculiar being. When her aunt first sees her, she abides in the depths of her home library, thinking herself strong and accomplished because of the books she is perusing. She is, in fact, quite forlorn, though unaware. She absolutely ignores the ways of the world she is about to be thrown into, and nobody will come to her aid, not even those who pretend to care most for her, as Ralph, because all these others are, in their own way, maimed creatures, as unable to penetrate her world as she is to penetrate theirs. But theirs is the dominant world, and that is why we know that she will be lost. Moreover, none of them are fit to be really, deeply loved by her, none except the ghost, that elusive being that lives on its own rules, rules that Isabel is ready to accept. Eventually, life is but the ground on which Isabel’ game with the ghost is played. To match the ghost’s powers she must arm herself with its own weapons. The ghost’s ultimate weapon is death, that is why when Ralph dies the ghost, till now in shadow, takes his form. Accordingly, she returns to Osmond’s living cage as a way of giving in to her own, complete destruction. When this happens she will be the ghost’s equal. Her fate will then be fulfilled.
This is the underlying story I believe James to have written. The frame of the portrait being but an excuse, though an extraordinary one. After all, he was a great lover of Ghost Stories.
Still, another very different reading of this story is possible. That the ghost is but a personification of Europe, the epitome of European decadence. This ghost is unquestionably malignant. Americans fall for him, symbolised by Isabel. For Isabel’s is the spirit of Americanism. In fact, all the characters that appear are Americans that are enchanted by Europe. And the only significant Europeans that we find, Lord Warbutton and Henrietta’s fiancé, fall in love with Americans, as a source of new life to them. To follow the track of this luring ghost expecting to hear what it has to reveal implies, to some extent, destruction. Those acquainted with the ghost know this well: some try to escape linking their fates to Americans, other, aware that they are already condemned, like Ralph, play along.
Whichever the case, the ghost lays deep in the heart of Isabel. In fact, we will never know to which group she belongs, for her true and final destiny remains a mystery so far, forever locked inside herself.
Henry James: “The Art of Fiction”
Henry James: “Preface to The Portrait of a Lady”