.. or of judgment concerning Osmond’s character- that though she had married in freedom, she had not married freedom- all her strength and sense of dignity come to her, as the cherished ideal of freedom as opposed to her husband’s strict conformity to standard traditions. “Osmond was fond of the old, the consecrated, the transmitted; so was she, but she pretended to do what she chose with it” (James 558). The belief that she is free, has always been, and still is, in spite of the rigid system that Osmond wants to force on her. She made a mistake, she knows, in marrying Osmond; but she believes she had been free to make it.
A certain point comes in the novel, where everything changes for Isabel, and she realizes that she must make an important decision regarding her search for freedom.However, it does not progress well for Isabel after this point. Isabel sat there looking up at her, without rising; her face almost a prayer to be enlightened. But the light of this woman’s eyes seemed only a darkness.
“O misery!” she murmured at last; and she fell back, covering her face with her hands. It had come over her like a high surging wave that Mrs.Touchett was right. Madame Merle had married her. Before she uncovered her face again that lady had left the room (James 551).
This is a crucial scene in the whole novel, particularly important for the understanding of Isabel’s sense of freedom, and her subsequent attempts to preserve it. Isabel Osmond- trapped by the premeditated schemes of her husband and of Madame Merle- begins to realize how far away she is now from Isabel Archer, the independent young woman at the beginning of the novel, a symbol in herself of unlimited freedom in her undeveloped potentialities. She realizes that she wishes to fight to get that person back.As Isabel works at redeeming her lost sense of freedom, she loses sight of her priorities, and gradually begins her destruction. Isabel’s discoveries about her freedom or lack of freedom, as well as her final stubborn attempt to mend the broken image of her illusion of self-control, can also be read as an unspoken comment on the shifting values of late nineteenth century, such as individualism and individual freedom, integrity and dignity of mind, and inner purity. James is saying that although these human virtues are desirable, one should watch at what cost they are attained.
Human sense of self and happiness are just as important as the visible external distinctions. “Her notion of human freedom, dignity, and responsibility, as well as her ideal of marriage and her conception of a woman’s place in society, inexorably trace of her, paradoxically, her freely chosen path” (Santos 309).Ironically, what Isabel considers to be genuine free will can be interpreted as controlled forces, as well. Consequently, Isabel Archer returns to Rome and to her husband, Osmond, at the end of the novel because she is desperately trying to preserve a lost ideal of individual freedom as the basis for a woman’s social identity. Eventually, Isabel realizes that the most important decision of her life, her marriage, had been determined, not by her own free choice, but by someone else’s intentional planning, and she is distraught. She sees herself as a mere instrument, a useful tool in other people’s hands, a mere puppet. Once again, Isabel does not know what to do.
The centering of her behavior for the last couple of years on her freedom, the stabilizing force in her life when she had none, is what got her in this predicament. Finally, Isabel comes up with a solution, still not changing what she had previously thought of as the suitable way to make her life decisions. Her following behavior indicates that she loves individual freedom more than she loves self-righteousness. According to Isabel, by returning to Rome and to her heartless husband in the end, she is sanctioning her first act, turning it into a free act. “Isabel’s final decision to go back to her husband, in enfranchising her first choice, endows her with the responsibility one demands of all free human beings” (Santos 310). This means that she thinks that if she does not go back on her actions in the past, including marrying Gilbert Osmond, then it will be like proving that it was a knowledgeable act in the first place, something she did out of her own free will.
Isabel needs this type of reassurement because it reflects her solid freedom that she had been emphasizing right from the beginning. Without it, she would be lost and have lead a meaningless life. To be free is to be master of one’s destiny.
Isabel Archer thinks that she achieves this by this act of returning to her unloving husband; but in reality, she is trapped and just beginning her fall. When in the end Isabel rejects Caspar Goodwood’s proposal of marriage for the last time, she is above all aware that Caspar’s idea of freedom contradicts her own, that it would nullify her very conception of herself. For Goodwood, freedom means “that a woman deliberately made to suffer is justified in anything in life” (James 626); for Isabel, freedom means that a woman that has made herself responsible for her own suffering has only one “very straight path” to follow, the wide, but painful, path of genuineness to one’s self (James 628).Goodwood’s view of freedom is much more flexible than Isabel’s. The heroine is too set in her ways. This causes her inability to be able to adapt to the changes in her situations that require different quick and logical thinking. Isabel Archer is unfit to make such significant decisions because she does not know how to follow her heart, not her head and sense of freedom.
Two forceful motives have been keeping Isabel faithful to the sacred ideal of her marriage. First, she had been free when she had decided to marry Gilbert Osmond, and therefore she feels she must accept the consequences of her acts, however painful: “one must accept one’s deeds.I married him before all the world; I was perfectly free; it was impossible to do anything more deliberate” (James 521). Isabel feels that she cannot go back on that promise now without breaking her code of honoring her freedom. Secondly, Isabel’s pride determines her unwillingness to admit that she has made a mistake. She knows that she has made a mistake, but she cannot admit to it externally: “I don’t think that’s decent.
I’d much rather die” (James 521).If she would have done that, she would not be free because she would always have that one mistake that she owes someone binding her to change. Isabel’s attitude is a result of her sense of freedom; she is still free to choose the face she wants to show, and she ultimately chooses not to acknowledge publicly such a great error of perception on her part concerning Osmond. The question is raised if Isabel’s need for her independence will not lead to the loss of her life. “Isabel even wonders at one point, with a twinge of fear, if her insistence on her freedom may not lead to some desert place of pride and isolation” (Long 117). Certainly she is vulnerable, since pride and isolation are part of her character.
This is what occurs at length when Isabel returns to her husband, Osmond. Moreover, Osmond very strikingly represents pride and isolation, and in him one has a morbid reflection of Isabel. “A long life yet lies ahead of her, and it is certain to be one in which there will be suffering” (Long 126). Being with Osmond definitely means a life of isolation, suffering, and unhappiness for her. “Isabel undertakes to experience her consequent suffering alone, unaided by the support of friends or by the authority of social forms” (O’Neill 47).Loneliness will make the suffering even worse for Isabel. In conclusion, it is this decision that is her final undoing.
Ironically, it was made with the intention of being most free, yet, obviously it did not turn out to be as positive as was hoped. “The whole second half of the novel is a richly detailed treatment of the slavery into which Isabel has fallen, and account of suffering endured by a woman of Isabel’s type reduced to conventional marriage” (O’Neill 26). A slightly unexpected turn from the start of the novel, Isabel was not expecting to actually conform with convention as she was striving for freedom. Because Isabel chooses to stay with Osmond, she will be discontented, destroying her initial free spirit, yet she can no longer do nothing about it. In The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer ends all possibility of leading a healthy life through her search for personal freedom. Through Henry James’ implied commentary, it is clear that however perfect the American ideal of freedom may sound, it can be undesirable, as well.Isabel Archer allowed this fault to overcome her whole person. It is the logic aspiration for freedom “that is Isabel’s tragic flaw which leads to her downfall in a society of whose ruthlessness she had no comprehension” (Cargill 98).
Even though it is not a negative quality alone, under her circumstances it proved disastrous. Ultimately, it is the significant title of The Portrait of a Lady that colorfully depicts everything. The portrait of the lady, Isabel, is not meant to be looked upon with sophisticated empathy. “Isabel is not trapped within a frame” (Winner 143).Instead, she is so real and vivid that she becomes alive. Every person should think of their own life like this: look outside the picture frame because a real world exists that is waiting to provide lessons and experiences for individuals to learn and better themselves.
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The Novels of Henry James. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978.Long, Robert Emmet. Henry James: The Early Novels. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983. O’Neill, John P. Workable Design.
Port Washington, NY: National University Publications, 1973. Santos Sousa de, Maria Irene Ramalho. Henry James.
Ed. Harold Bloom.New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. Sharma, Jagdish Narain. The International Fiction of Henry James. Delhi: The Macmillan Company of India Limited, 1979.
Sicker, Philip. Love and the Quest for Identity in the Fiction of Henry James.Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980. Winner, Viola. Henry James and the Visual Arts. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1970.