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Doll - An Exploratory Short Story

aseidman's picture


In class on Tuesday, May 2, 2010, we discussed the fact that Henry James, particularly in his novel The Portrait of a Lady, leaves a great deal unsaid. He chooses not to include in the novel several scenes in which his characters make important decisions, but instead references those decisions later, never having explored the nature of how they came about. Some of my classmates were very much against this idea, or felt cheated by the fact that James did not feel it necessary to provide them with all of the information pertaining to his story. Other classmates were intrigued, or even pleased by the fact that he left such a great deal up to the imagination of the reader.

The following short story features Pansy and Lord Warburton, two of the secondary characters from The Portrait of a Lady, engaged in somewhat awkward conversation. Later in the novel, Henry James’ Pansy will indicate to Isabel, her stepmother, that she understands Lord Warburton’s motives and his desires well enough to be satisfied with both. In James’ novel, this understanding of Pansy’s is never explained. We, the readers, never see any interactoin between Pansy and Warburton which leads either of them to draw a final conclusion about the other. I hope, through this exploratory short story, to bring the reader to a better understanding of why Warburton feels the way tha he does, who Pansy really is, and then to examine what that knowledge provides for the reader. Questions to consider while reading this short story include; how does this scene change your perception of Isabel, and of the characters in the story who do not appear here?Does having read this scene make the narrator a more reliable, or a less reliable one? What parts of the book feel clearer after reading this short story, and does that clarity change your perception of or sympathy towards any of the characters involved? Do you prefer the novel with or without this inserted short story. The intention is for you to consider the merits of further exposition and character development, and not to pay too much attention to the fact that I wrote the story. For the sake of the literary experiment, pretend that I'm Henry James. It might take some doing, but I have faith in you.


a pretty little doll at a piano. You'll get the significance of this if you keep reading.



by aseidman

Based on The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James


Pansy, thought Lord Warburton, a little against his conscious will, did not play the piano so very well. That afternoon he came upon her, seated at the instrument, sitting rigidly and correctly on the bench and plying the keys perfectly with her delicate little fingers. It wasn’t that she was out of tune, he decided, or that she couldn’t seem to get the notes right. On the contrary, she seemed almost not to have to look at the music, and had apparently memorized the song to her heart. She played, however, not from that heart, but entirely from her head, adding no hint of her own musicality, her own spirit or inclination towards the piece at all. Instead, Pansy played with exquisitely plain perfection, exactly the way the composer would have desired his music to be read. Even her posture was the right combination of attentive and absorbed, and yet Warburton did not feel as though she found anything truly captivating about her present employment. Instead, she was performing a role, a role which she had learned by rote in very much the same way, no doubt, as she had learned this charming little piece of music.

What he found so particularly odd about all of this was how little of Isabel’s influence Pansy showed. Lord Warburton, having felt a great deal of it in his time, could not imagine how anyone should fail to fall under the influence of Isabel Archer, who was a woman who seemed to sweep everyone and everything around her up in her web of intriguing contradictions. Where Isabel would have swung herself, body and soul, into a musical composition that had captivated her enough to commit it to memory, Pansy appeared totally unaffected. It was truly strange to him that Pansy could spend so much time with her stepmother and yet have adopted none of her breathtaking mannerisms.

She was, as he had thought more than once or twice before, very much like a doll in so many ways. Her movements, her facial expressions, her attitudes and even her occasional perversities seemed all to have been pre-determined, part of a correctness that made her seem to him almost mechanical. Although each of her traits was charming and alluring in itself, her whole affect was that of having been posed into someone designed by an outside force to exhibit a particular set of desirable qualities. That hand, of course, had not been Isabel’s, and so it must, therefore, have been Mr. Osmond’s.

Lost in his own reflections, Warburton failed at first to notice that the music had ceased, and that Pansy, apparently now sensible of his presence, had turned around to look at him. Hastily, and murmuring a bit awkwardly to himself, he bowed to her. “Forgive my intrusion, Miss Osmond,” he began, “but I heard your excellent music from the other room, and couldn’t help drawing closer to hear it better. If I may be permitted to say so, you play most delightfully. It’s been a pleasure to listen to you.”

“Thank you,” murmured Pansy, properly demure. Not quite meeting his eyes, she added, “I’m very glad it pleases you.”

Perversely, Warburton had a sudden and inappropriate desire to make her do something unladylike. Coughing to hide the confusion that this impulse created in him, he stared bleakly at the floor for a moment, so that the effect for was for both of them to be looking off in another direction, rather than into each other’s faces. It was Pansy who eventually broke the silence, which had begun to grow very awkward.

“I wish,” she said, “that you would not go out of your way to pay me compliments.”

Warburton raised his eyes to her in some surprise. “I assure you,” he replied, “I’ve no need to look very far for excuses. You’re quite a commendable young woman, and you give me no lack of opportunity for suitable praise.”

“I thank you,” she said again, with perfect politeness, and yet somehow, Warburton did not feel as though she were in any way sincerely grateful.

“Ah,” he persisted, somehow unable to prevent himself despite her obvious desire to discontinue the conversation, “the man who wins over the heart of such a lady as yourself will be a very happy one. I daresay you’d make the prettiest little wife for any lucky cavalier.”

Those last words, he knew, had been an impertinence. The blush that spread over Pansy’s face, however, was clearly there against her will, a sign of her humanity and penchant for emotions that were not under control. He appreciated being able to see that, and having the opportunity to witness a moment in Pansy’s life during which she wasn’t poised to please. It gratified him that at least, somewhere within her, she knew what pleased her and what did not.

“You’re very kind, Lord Warburton,” she told him, and Warburton reflected guiltily that he was not being very kind, but was indeed being rather cruel to play with the heartstrings of a young girl simply for his own perverse interests. He reflected that kindness, to her, might mean something entirely different than it had ever meant to him. To Pansy, kindness might be something that she gave to those around her when they acted the way they were meant to act, or something that was given to her when she performed appropriately. Kindness, to Pansy, might not be the spontaneous, unconditional show of true human connection that he had always deemed it to be, and perhaps it was for that reason that the girl was unable to accept any of the influence of the very impulsive and entirely genuine Isabel. For all of that, Warburton realized, he pitied Pansy, pitied her so deeply that he even began to feel a kind of kinship with her that he had not expected to experience.

And yet, he was forced to recognize, he did not, and could not love her.


A small broken heart. Boo hoo! Warburton does not have a happy love life.


It is difficult, of course, for me to attempt to analyze my own story, and so my reflections on this piece are very likely to be useless. However, considering The Portrait of a Lady after taking this piece into consideration, I am more likely to accept Isabel’s perceptions and “readings” of the world around her as reliable. Pansy’s further characterization, as well, adds a bit more potential villainy to Osmond. Any interactions between Osmond and Isabel read after this short story will be inevitably colored by Warburton’s perception of Pansy, despite the fact that neither Osmond or Isabel appear in this scene. Warburton’s motives in remaining around the house are also somewhat clarified by this piece. Although it is mentioned neither in this story, nor in James’ novel, after reading this piece I am more likely to believe that it was Warburton’s pity and genuine friendly feeling for Pansy that contributed to his staying by her side, and not only his continued amorous interest in Isabel. This makes Ralph seem a bit overzealous in his condemnation of Warburton’s actions in staying in Rome, and, without ever mentioning his name or even his person, sheds some light on the nature of his character.

You can see, therefore, how even this short inserted scene can contribute our perception of the novel. I think it provides even more room for imaginative theories on the part of the reader, since they now have even more to work and to speculate upon, as well as the ability to make more sense out of the motives of Lord Warburton, who is otherwise subject only to the condemnation and frustrated assumptions of the rest of the characters in the novel.

I am, of course, very curious to hear what you think about the issue of more or less clarity, and how adding more depth to characters may either reduce or increase the amount of mystery in the story!


Anne Dalke's picture

A Desire for the Definitive?

I'm impressed: I think you do a lovely job evoking both Pansy's "doll-like" character and Warburton's bemused interest (and disinterest!) in her; you make explicit, in really quite Jamesian-like prose, what is only hinted @ in the gaps of the novel itself. Pansy's "playing with exquisitely plain perfection," even down to the "posture" of her "present" "performance" (all those "p's" and yet no passion!) is so nicely rendered that I can't tell whether I'm reading parody or the thing itself.

Your use of the image-and-implications of a doll-like figure is of particular interest to me (and may be to you) because I've just discovered that, in one of the most surreal versions of Alice in Wonderland,  -- Jan Svankmajer's 1988 film, Neco z Alenky -- Alice literally turns into a doll whenever she shrinks in size. So you've got me thinking now of a range of possible connections betwixt and between this Alice, Sontag's Alice in Bed, Alice James, her brother Harry, and Harry's creations, Isabel and Pansy. It occurs to me, among other things, that Pansy is what isabel might have been, had Osmond "gotten to her" sooner.

And yet! as much as I admire your writing, and your experiment, I do find myself somewhat puzzled and amazed by all the gap-filling that's been going on 'round here! MissArcher2 has imagined the spaces inbetween by filling them with images; exsoloadsolem has highlighted the explicitness Joyce Carol Oates has brought to James's horror story; fabelhaft has also  clarified the ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw by reading it through the lens of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Is all this filling-in the result only of the academic need to explicate? Or the result of something larger, and more largely human, our desire for definitive answers?