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Image and Metaphor: Alice James Revisited

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At the beginning of this semester in House of Wits, I was amazed by how struck I was by Alice James’ diary. I immediately felt an inexplicable affinity with Alice, her commonplace book-cum-diary, and her infectious use of language. It was one of the first times that I explicitly recall feeling such camaraderie with an author, let alone one who penned her only published work (excluding her letters) nearly 120 years ago.

I did not fall in love with William or Henry the way in which I fell for Alice. That is not to say that I did not learn from them, appreciate their musings and writings, or engage in discussions about them, but Alice spoiled me. When presented with the potential for including Alice in my final performance for House of Wits, I leapt at the opportunity. To put it plainly, I missed her, and I regretted the incredibly limited body of her work that exists in the vast library of the world’s published texts. I felt she deserved more of a voice than she lent herself, and so Julia (my presentation partner) and I crafted a fictional commencement speech for Alice to the Bryn Mawr graduating class of 1891. Not only was the project inspired and informed by our late-semester readings from William and Henry’s speeches to Bryn Mawr students and more recent speeches delivered by Ursula Le Guin and Drew Gilpin Faust, but it also gave Alice the opportunity to (fictionally) take part in an activity that her brothers were also involved in, one of the first times (as we have learned from our readings) that Alice was given the chance to prove her mettle in a sphere her brothers also inhabited. Ever limited by her father’s thoughts about women and education, her mental and physical illnesses, and the state of the world in which she briefly lived, Alice developed what I would consider a fairly serious case of agoraphobia. She kept to her bed almost permanently for the six years prior to her death, and while she includes a number of accounts of being out-of-doors, her readers cannot safely assume that these outings occurred (as Alice was writing her diary for her own purposes, we cannot necessarily take the information therein as reliable fact). 

I became interested in the James’ use of language, specifically metaphor, during this course’s section on William James. I found that I benefited, as a visual learner, from exploring William’s metaphors through imagery. What resulted was a few postings that essentially progressed as photo-essays, in which I analyzed, to various degrees, the imagery conjured up by William’s metaphors, the effect his metaphors had on his texts and theories, and the ways in which those metaphors can be interpreted differently by translating them into images. For my final project, inspired by my growing interest in visual representations of metaphors, I aim to let Alice reap the benefits of my experiences with Henry and William. I re-read Alice’s diary to find metaphors that had otherwise been overlooked in my initial reading, and will attempt not only to interpret these metaphors through images, but to give the reader a glimpse into Alice’s private world and give Alice the chance to have a public voice. By providing multiple images for each of Alice’s metaphors I have chosen to explore, I hope to shed light on the way Alice interacted with the world. An additional goal in my providing multiple images to illustrate the same metaphor is to explore the complexities of imagery and language, in an attempt to honor Henry as my exploration of metaphors honors William. I consider this a culmination of my time in House of Wits because this interest in Alice herself would likely not have sprung up without the help of this course, but also because I feel Alice deserves to be revisited after reading the works of her brothers. 

On December 1 of 1889, Alice writes that her interactions with people have been “indigestible” since Katharine Loring’s departure from England in mid-November of the same year. Alice says she “…shall learn to cork [her]self up again before long and return to [her] state of ‘bottled lightning’…”(60). This is the first metaphor of Alice’s I will focus on. Alice writes that ‘bottled lightning’ is “…an expression which [William] culled from a story he read once in a Boston newspaper, where the heroine is thusly described.”(60) Attempts to find this story were futile, but I did discover that the term was used by Charles Dickens: “bring in the bottled lightning, a clean tumbler, and a corkscrew.” I found it interesting that the metaphor Alice uses had such dramatically different visual realizations, and have tried to illustrate (with my choice of image and the analysis that follows) the very different ways in which Alice might consider herself and her personality through this metaphor.


The first image is one of an alcohol bottle, in direct reference to Dickens’ quote. The notion of alcohol as “bottled lightning” conjures notions of Alice considering herself intoxicating, if somewhat irresponsible (and even, to a certain degree, harmful). Perhaps this is a reflection of Alice’s notions of how others perceive her. She often records of having infrequent visitors or being misunderstood by others. The mention of the bottle in this metaphor implies not only a sense of confinement, but also conjures an image of being placed on a shelf or in a cupboard, stored out of sight until next needed. It is easy to imagine how often Alice felt this way. Limited by her anxieties and physical state, she relied on others to come to her. From various entries in her diary, we can see that she often felt burdensome. Her tenacity and brilliance (the “lightning”/alcohol within the bottle) was limited by her physical and mental confinement (the bottle).


The second image I have chosen is the closest representation I could find of literal bottled lightning. This implies entirely different conclusions about Alice and her thoughts about herself. It implies feelings of entrapment and limitation, as though her potential cannot be fully realized within the boundaries that she lives. What is complex about these conclusions is that Alice’s confinement was often seen as, to at least some degree, self-inflicted, despite its roots in her hysteria. Alice spent some time functioning in the world, taking to her bed once she was abroad permanently, and it seems that many friends (and her brothers) questioned her ability to simply get back up and reclaim her place in society. For functional people, the act of getting out of bed and leaving the house is a part of each day, but the world outside Alice’s bed had been an unfriendly place. Her emotional instability and her physical complaints confined her in ways that could not be overcome by sheer will, although we must also consider her lack of will to leave her confinement. Alice was a lightning bolt of knowledge, interest, and intelligence that was confined to bed and quietude, her own personal bottle.


What I find interesting about these images in conjunction with each other is their comparable-yet-contradictory conclusions about Alice’s life. One the one hand, the image of the alcohol bottle can suggest that Alice needs taming or confinement for the good of others: on the other, the notion of bottled lightning seems to speak to a feeling of limitation or misunderstanding, especially because the image (for me) gives off a feeling that Alice’s bottling is not self-chosen. Thus far, this example has, in my opinion, confirmed the legitimacy of this paper: I would not necessarily have thought about the metaphor much further in reading Alice’s diary apart from this research, and I absolutely would not have interpreted Alice’s meaning s anything other than a quip about her feeling the need to hold her tongue of lightning.


On February 21 of 1890, Alice writes a diary entry regarding the mind and soul as it ages, referring to the serenity of those in middle life, “when…sure of [their] direction all the simple incidents of daily life and human complication explain and enrich themselves are the are linked and fitted to the wealth of past experience.”(95) Within these musings, Alice reflects upon her youth and the state of her “…young soul struggling out of its swaddling-clothes as the knowledge crystallized within [her] of what Life meant for [her], one simple, single and before which all mystery vanished.”(95) She talks of her young adulthood in Newport (1862-1863, at which point she would have been sixteen or seventeen) and of the “spark” she felt there, “…which every experience great and small has fed into a steady flame which has illuminated my little journey…”(95) She then refers to herself as being “…profoundly grateful…for the temperament which saves from the wretched fate of those poor creatures who never find their bearings, but are tossed like dryed leaved hither, thither and yon at the mercy of every event which o’ertakes them.”(96) This is the second metaphor I will interrogate.


I have posted these images together because, unlike the first metaphor discussed, I do not find them to be very much different from one another. In this particular case, I do not necessarily want (or feel the need to) discuss different interpretations of the metaphor, because I think Alice makes herself and her intentions abundantly clear. It is true, we all know, that leaves blow without the ability to determine their own route or destination. Alice establishes this by using leaves as a metaphor for people whom she sees are without “bearings,” or a “spark” or “flame.” I, of course, have this image of Alice as the leaf that, against all odds, still clings tightly to the tree in the dead of winter, when all other leaves have been shed. One illuminating point that came to mind in the search for these images, however, is one that Alice may have overlooked. Look again at these images. It is true that the concept of blowing leaves is not unfamiliar to most of us, and that, as I have said, the images are at least conceptually similar. What I am asking the reader to see is that the leaves in these images are not alone. In my search for visual representations of this metaphor, I could not find an image of a lone leaf in the wind. Leaves may be at the mercy of the wind, but if there is a gust, they will all be spirited away on the wind currents. I cannot speak to whether or not Alice recognized this, but what I feel these images reveal for this metaphor is a profound sadness or loneliness that underlies Alice’s gratitude. Alice James had a temperament that lent itself to solitude and stationary life, especially during the time she was authoring the diary, which is a rare disposition to possess in the world. Most people relish travel and adventure and company, which I do not mean to imply Alice did not enjoy, but she was rather content to receive visitors and all their stories while in her bed or on her sofa. Alice did not pretend that she wasn’t lonely, and she certainly was grateful for the company of Katharine Loring and Henry. My intention here, however, is to posit that, beneath Alice’s gratitude, she is revealing a sense of sadness and regret, and that this would not have been made clear (at least, for me) without seeing images that are representative of her metaphor.


I find it fitting, both to the class and to this paper, to end with the following analysis. On March 22, 1891, Alice begins a diary entry by saying, “How amusing it is to see the fixed mosaic of one's little destiny being filled out by the tiny blocks of events, the enchantment of minute consequences with the illusion of choice weathering it all!”(181) The entry that continues is a lighthearted account of Alice’s relocation to Kensington. What has struck me most, however, about this metaphor and its appearance in such a blithe context, is that within a year after recording this sentence, Alice James had died. It would have been fascinating to know if Alice saw her destiny’s “fixed mosaic” the same way after her terminal cancer diagnosis. With all that her diary includes about suicide and negative feelings toward living, it is easy to imagine that she accepted her impending death as a relief. However, her diary also includes entries about the births and growing families in the communities in which she lived, fond thoughts of her childhood and family, bittersweet recollections of her parents’ lives (facilitated by the discovery of her parents’ letters in January 1890), and appreciation for the people with whom she surrounded herself, including Henry, Katharine Loring, and even her Nurse and landladies. Did Alice truly believe that everything in her life was predetermined, and that nothing was left to chance or circumstance? Did she, perhaps, see the general trajectory of her life as a “fixed mosaic,” but open herself to ‘unfixed-ness’? I feel most of her readers wish they could know.


This is clearly the mosaic pattern Alice had in mind when she referred to a “fixed mosaic.” This image is representative, I imagine, of the mosaic Alice has in mind, one whose pattern and colors are predetermined. However, the plainness and monochromatic nature of this pattern, I feel, doesn’t reflect Alice’s life or destiny. There is something upsetting in Alice’s characterization of her life through this metaphor. Not only was her life far more interesting than she credits, but she has made an impact on the world after death that she could not have anticipated. This image feels most accurate to Alice when one considers her mental state and physical challenges: perhaps she saw her life as pre-planned and drearily repetitive because, at the time of her diary, she had been ill for such a large percentage of her life. I can only imagine how tired she must have been.




This mosaic is actually the image that came to my mind when I first read this entry from Alice’s diary. This is part of the Magic Garden, a lot on South Street in Philadelphia that has become an incredible mosaic and found-object work of art. I find that this image acts as not only the counterbalance to the previous image, but to Alice herself. This image reinforces the fact that mosaics do not have to be methodical, predictable, or even discernable. I hesitate the believe that the artist behind the Magic Garden knew precisely what his or her project would look like after its completion, whereas most other mosaic artists follow a strict formula and procedure in order to complete their mosaics. This mosaic, I feel, is truer to Alice’s life. In her writing alone we can see how dynamic, how bitingly sarcastic, how delightfully engaged she was. She brought the world to her bedside with her fervent interest in the politics of Ireland and with Henry’s tales of travel and celebrity meetings. She did not simply give up, and she did not wilt under the pressure of her illness or anxieties. I do not think her life came to her without surprise, and I am certain she would be pleased to see how her name has carried on since her death. It is for these reasons that I firmly believe this mosaic to be most representative of Alice James.

 Alice has ignited a passion in me.  I read her words and I fancy that I can hear her speaking to me.  I can only imagine that she and I would have been friends.  While I recognize that, even without her early death, that never would have been possible, I appreciate the fantasy.  I admire Alice for her strength, and, as evidenced (I hope) by the metaphors I have chosen to interrogate and the images I have provided as representations of those metaphors, I admire Alice for her imagination and creativity.  She and her brothers all had an admirable grasp of language and a thirst for knowledge, but Alice, to me, seems the most human.  I will endlessly appreciate her for her accessibility and her humanity.