Portrait of a Lady by Henry James – God of the Machine
Jun 152002

When I read this book at 40 I realized that when I read it at 20 I didn’t understand Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond at all. It is tragic in the novel, if retrospective balm for the ego, that Isabel is taken in by them herself.

Osmond is indeed a monster, and James is very specific about how. He is a solipsist: everything in his tiny universe must be a reflection of himself. This is why he is prepared to marry off his daughter to a man who doesn’t love her, why he does nothing for Madame Merle, who devotes her life to helping him, and why, finally, he hates and tortures his wife: she is too independent, her ideas are her own rather than reflections of his. James says much, and his characters still more, about how clever Osmond is, but his ideas, for all the care he lavishes on them, are really quite dull. They boil down to an abiding respect for forms, customs, traditions. When his sister, the silly but shrewd Countess Gemini, explains to Isabel that Madame Merle never married Osmond because “she has never had, about him, she had never had, what you might call any illusions of intelligence,” we are surprised, but we feel, on reflection, the force of the judgment. Yvor Winters complains that Osmond, although a “thoroughly unpleasant neurotic aesthete,” is not adequate to inspire the sort of terror that Isabel, and later Pansy, feels. But what can be more terrifying than a clever, well-plotted attempt to stifle one’s ideas, one’s person, one’s very identity? That’s what Osmond does, and what he is.

A few words about Ralph Touchett, one of the most unforgettable of the substantial galaxy of Jamesian minor characters. Ralph, unlike God, must pay for his omniscience in impotence: he is ill, and must take his pleasure from the gallery. In the plot, however, is Ralph is very much a man of action. The two great turning points of the novel–Isabel’s inheritance, and her break with Osmond–are both precipitated by Ralph. He does a great deal more than watch.

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