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Notes Towards Day 10: The Education of Isabel Archer; or, The Trouble with Imagination

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Penguins' Notes on Our Conversation


""Do you know where you're going, Isabel Archer?...."Do you know where you're drifting?" Henrietta pursued...."No, I haven't the least idea, and I find it very pleasant not to know. A swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can't see--that's my idea of happiness"...."like the heroine of an immoral novel," said Miss Stackpole. "You're drifting to some great mistake." (The Portrait of a Lady, Ch. 17, p. 144)

I. coursekeeping
Penguins is our notetaker today
For Monday, finish The Portrait of a Lady!

II. Happiness Is...
hers? yours?

Miss Archer 2: on taking control of your own destiny (by refusing a proposal?)
Karl Kirchwey/ Christophe Plantin on The Happiness of This World

III. Isabel travels very quickly from being imaginative to being unhappy;
we suggested on Monday that her romantic imagination contributed
directly to her so misreading the world and its possibilities:

Ch. 3: ...this young lady had been seated alone with a book. To say she was so occupied is to say that her solitude did not press upon her; for her love of knowledge had a fertilizing quality and her imagination was strong.

But she had no wish to look out, for this would have interfered with her theory that there was a strange, unseen place on the other side--a place which became to the child's imagination, according to its different moods, a region of delight of terror.

Ch. 4: She closed her eyes as she sat in one of the dusky corners of the quiet parlour...because she ...wished to check the sense of seeing too many things at once. Her imagination was by habit ridiculously active; when the door was not open it jumped out of the window. She was not accustomed indeed to keep it behind bolts...

Ch. 6: Isabel Archer was a young person of many theories;
her imagination was remarkably active

The girl had a certain nobleness of imagination which rendered her a good many services and played her a great many tricks.

Ch. 18: "I call people rich when they're able to meet the requirements of their imagination. Isabel has a great deal of imagination."

Ch. 20, Henrietta's warning, via jrlewis: All of the quotes I selected have an element of foreshadowing to them.  I suspect they were meant to put the reader on their guard against some misfortune): “The peril for you is that you live too much in the world of your own dreams- you are not enough in contact with reality- with the toiling, striving, suffering, I may even say sinning, world that surrounds you.  You are too fastidious; you have too many graceful illusions.  Your newly acquired thousands will shut you up more and more to the society of a few selfish and heartless people, who will be interested in keeping up those illusions.” 

Ch. 23:
"I could do nothing. I had no prospects, I was poor, and I was not a man of genius. I had no talents even; I took my measure early in life....the things I've cared for have been definite--limited. The events of my life have been absolutely unperceived by any one...." This would have been rather a dry account of Mr. Osmond's' career if Isabel had fully believed it; but her imagination supplied the human element which she was sure had not been wanting.

Gilbert Osmond presents himself as a "blank page" (see all the "no's" and "nothings") and Isabel fills it  (="writes on him") w/ her ideals and dreams. Her imagination responds in direct proportion to his blankness. Had he not been so "empty," and she not so idealistic (so imaginative?), she might not have married Osmond.

Ch. 29: Her imagination, as I say, now hung back: there was a last vague space it couldn't cross--a dusky, uncertain tract which looked ambiguous and even slightly treacherous, like a moorland seen in the winter twilight. But she was to cross it yet.

Ch. 42: Isabel wandered among these ugly possibilities until she had completely lost her way; some of them, as she suddenly encountered them, seemed ugly enough. Then she broke out of the labyrinth, rubbing her eyes, and declared that her imagination surely did her little honour....

IV. Ben Underwood, "Purely Platonic Relations with Isabel: Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady and Plato's Allegory of the Cave." ANQ 19, 2 (Spring 2006): 46-52.
As the chronicle of a deluded character, perhaps The Portrait of a Lady bears some inevitable resemblance to Plato's allegory of the cave, a nearly unavoidable touchstone in western thinking about misperception.

James begins Portrait with...emphasis on light and shadow...Isabel believes that her observations are accurate, but they are colored by her ideals and constricted by her lack of information.... would seem that Isabel's affection for her stepdaughter and her recognition of the type of duty Socrates describes result in her return to her marital household.

V. Do you think that this a lesson, like Plato's, in misperception?
If so, does it (also) contain advice about how to see more clearly?
(What was Plato's advice?)

In the portion we've read for today, Isabel begins to learn to read the world more accurately. Let's look @ the two most (in)famous scenes of the novel, a key scene of perception, and--following on it--one of reflection:

"being is an unstable state, it is provisional and experimental"

** Ch. 40, p. 336: Just beyond the threshold of the drawing-room she stopped short, the reason for her doing so being that she had received an impression. The impression had, in strictness, nothing unprecedented; but she felt it as something new, and the soundlessness of her step gave her time to take in the scene before she interrupted it. Madame Merle was there in her bonnet, and Gilbert Osmond was talking to her; for a minute they were unaware she had come in. Isabel had often seen that before, certainly; but what she had not seen, or at least had not noticed, was that their colloquy had for the moment converted itself into a sort of familiar silence, from which she instantly perceived that her entrance would startle them. Madame Merle was standing on the rug, a little way from the fire; Osmond was in a deep chair, leaning back and looking at her. Her head was erect, as usual, but her eyes were bent on his. What struck Isabel first was that he was sitting while Madame Merle stood; there was an anomaly in this that arrested her. Then she perceived that they had arrived at a desultory pause in their exchange of ideas and were musing, face to face, with the freedom of old friends who sometimes exchange ideas without uttering them. There was nothing to shock in this; they were old friends in fact. But the thing made an image, lasting only a moment, like a sudden flicker of light. Their relative positions, their absorbed mutual gaze, struck her as something detected. But it was all over by the time she had fairly seen it.

**Ch. 42, pp. 347-358: She had answered nothing because his words had put the situation before her and she was absorbed in looking at it. There was something in them that suddenly made vibrations deep, so that she had been afraid to trust herself to speak. After he had gone she leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes; and for a long time, far into the night and still further, she sat in the still drawing-room, given up to her meditation....

Instead of leading to the high places of happiness, from which the world would seem to lie below one, so that one could look down with a sense of exaltation and advantage, and judge and choose and pity, [her marriage] led rather downward and earthward, into realms of restriction and depression where the sound of other lives, easier and freer, was heard as from above, and where it served to deepen the feeling of failure....

She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation. Osmond's beautiful mind gave it neither light nor air; Osmond's beautiful mind indeed seemed to peep down from a small high window and mock at her.....

Her notion of the aristocratic life was simply the union of great knowledge with great liberty; the knowledge would give one a sense of duty and the liberty a sense of enjoyment. But for Osmond it was altogether a thing of forms, a conscious, calculated attitude.

...she too must march to the stately music that floated down from unknown periods in her husband's past; she who of old had been so free of step, so desultory, so devious, so much the reverse of processional. There were certain things they must do, a certain posture they must take, certain people they must know and not know. When she saw this rigid system close about her, draped though it was in pictured tapestries, that sense of darkness and suffocation of which I have spoken took possession of her; she seemed shut up with an odour of mould and decay.

....her vigil took no heed of time. Her mind, assailed by visions, was in a state of extraordinary activity...she...stood there gazing at a remembered vision--that of her husband and Madame Merle unconsciously and familiarly associated.

VI. Isabel has traveled (so far) from the world
of the imagination to the world of perception.

What is the difference between imagination and perception?

And what (imaginative? perceptive?) thing will she do, now, with her mistake?

Ch. 40, p. 333:
It was impossible to pretend that she had not acted with her eyes open; if ever a girl was a free agent she had been. A girl in love was doubtless not a free agent; but the sole source of her mistake had been within herself. There had been no plot, no snare; she had looked and considered and chosen. When a woman had made such a mistake, there was only one way to repair it-just immensely (oh, with the highest grandeur! to accept it.

VII. Wai Chee dimock, "Pre-national Time: Novel, Epic, Henry James."
The Henry James Review 24, 3 (Fall 2003): 215f.

Literary studies must be rethought...Our discipline, largely a nation-based paradigm, has for too long been unilateral, carving up a global network into deceptively sovereign units....Time for much of the world's population is subnational in one sense, supranational in another....

....the literary map is a three-dimensional map. Featured here is not only the planet as it now stands but also the planet as it once was and as it might yet be....Periodization has to be loosened up....There is no better place to begin than The Portrait of a Lady:

"She had long before this taken old Rome into her confidence, for in that world of ruins the ruin of her happiness seemed a less unnatural catastrophe....small it was, in the large Roman record"....That scale...keeps tally of two thousand years of suffering. Isabel's a large fact. Scale enlargement here undoes human singularity and gathers it into a long continuum....

Enough has been written, [Ezra Pound] says, on the "minor James. Yet I have heard no word of the major James, of the hater of tyranny, book after early book against oppression....[The largeness of his canvas] stems from the duration and extension of its generic form, global in scope, because James..."does, nevertheless, treat of major forces, even of epic forces"....In Canto 7, [Pound] offers his version of literary history--a history of the epic--multilingual in its roots, and multilingual in its fusion of prose and poetry. Pound ...winds up with Henry James:
And the old voice lifts itself

weaving an endless sentence...
the only American author worthy of this epic lineage.

What is the source of her suffering?
Who is the tyrant? (Imagination?!)

Additional Reading Notes, thru Chapter 42
Ch. 28, p. 253:
Gilbert Osmond ... was fond of originals, of rarities, of the superior and the exquisite; and ... he perceived a new attraction in the idea of taking to himself a young lady who had qualified herself to figure in his collection of choice objects...

Ch. 29, p. 254: He thought Miss Archer sometimes of too precipitate a readiness. It was pity she had that fault, because if she had not had it she would really have had none; she would have been as smooth to his general need of her as handled ivory to the palm.

256: ought to make one's life a work of art?

258: the pang that suggested to her somehow the slipping of a fine bolt....morally speaking, she retreated before them--facing him still--as she had retreated in the other cases before a like encounter. "Oh don't say that, please," she answered with an intensity that expressed the dread of having, in this case too, to choose and decide. What made her dread great was precisely the force which, as it would seem, ought to have banished all dread--the sense of something within herself, deep down, that she supposed to be inspired and trustful passion. It was there like a large sum stored in a bank- which there was a terror in having to begin to spend. If she touched it, it would all come out.

260: The working of this young lady's spirit was strange, and I can only give it to you as I see it, not hoping to make it seem altogether natural. Her imagination, as I say, now hung back: there was a last vague space it couldn't cross--a dusky, uncertain tract which looked ambiguous and even slightly treacherous, like a moorland seen in the winter twilight. But she was to cross it yet.

261: Once in a while, at large intervals, this lady, whose voyaging discretion, as a general thing, was rather of the open sea than of the risky channel, dropped a remark of ambiguous quality, struck a note that sounded false.

Ch. 31, p. 267: She had never had a keener sense of freedom, of the absolute boldness and wantonness of liberty....The world lay before her--she could do whatever she chose.

269: Into this freshness of Madame Merle's she obtained a considerable insight; she seemed to see it as professional, as slightly mechanical, carried about in its case like the fiddle of the virtuoso, or blanketed and bridled like the "favourite" of the jockey....there was a corner of the curtain that never was lifted; it was as if she had remained after all something of a public performer, condemned to emerge only in character and in costume. She had once said that she came from a distance, that she belonged to the "old, old" world, and Isabel never lost the impression that she was the product of a different moral or social clime from her own, that she had grown up under other stars. She believed then that at bottom she had a different morality....our young woman had a sense in her of values gone wrong or, as they said at the shops, marked down....Her conception of human motives might, in certain lights, have been acquired at the court of some kingdom in decadence,

Ch 33, p. 281: Ralph was shocked and humiliated; his calculations had been false and the person in the world in whom he was most interested was lost. He drifted about the house like a rudderless vessel in a rocky stream....He felt cold about the heart; he had never liked anything less. What could he do, what could he say? If the girl were irreclaimable could he pretend to like it? To attempt to reclaim her was permissible only if the attempt should succeed. To try to persuade her of anything sordid or sinister in the man to whose deep art she had succumbed would be decently discreet only in the event of her being persuaded. Otherwise he should simply have damned himself.

Ch. 34, pp. 282-3: "You were the last person I expected to see're going to be put into a cage....A year ago you valued your liberty beyond everything. You wanted only to see life." "I've seen it," said Isabel. "It doesn't look to me now, I admit, such an inviting expanse...One must choose a corner and cultivate that"...."Wait a little longer...for a little more light," said Ralph

Ch. 35, p. 290: What could be a happier gift in a companion than a quick, fanciful mind which saved one repetitions and reflected one's thought on a polished, elegant surface? Osmond hated to see his thought reproduced literally-that made it look stale and stupid; he preferred it to be freshened in the reproduction even as "words" by music. His egotism had never taken the crude form of desiring a dull wife; this lady's intelligence was to be a silver plate, not an earthen one-a plate that he might heap up with ripe fruits, to which it would give a decorative value, so that talk might become for him a sort of served dessert. He found the silver quality in this perfection in Isabel; he could tap her imagination with his knuckle and make it ring.

Ch. 37, p. 303: Now, at all events, framed in the gilded doorway, she struck our young man as the picture of a gracious lady.

Ch. 39, p. 323: he had yet felt afresh what a fool he had been to put the girl on her guard. He had played the wrong card, and now he had lost the game. He should see nothing, he should learn nothing; for him she would always wear a mask....completely covered her face. There was something fixed and mechanical in the serenity painted on it; this was not an expression, Ralph said-it was a representation, it was even an advertisement.

p. 324: The free, keen girl had become quite another person; what he saw was the fine lady who was supposed to represent something...Gilbert Osmond.

p. 326: What kept Ralph alive was simply the fact that he had not yet seen enough of the person in the world in whom he was most interested: he was not yet satisfied. There was more to come; he couldn't make up his mind to lose that. He wanted to see what she would make of her husband-or what her husband would make of her. This was only the first act of the drama, and he was determined to sit out the performance.

Ch. 40, p. 330: That personage was armed at all points; it was a pleasure to see a character so completely equipped for the social battle. She carried her flag discreetly, but her weapons were polished steel, and she used them with a skill which struck Isabel as more and more that of a veteran.


Penguins' Notes on Our Conversation