Saturday, July 2, 2016
Isabel’s Dilemma in The Portrait of a Lady
What Women Look For In a Man?
Bathsheba Everdene is the main character in the novel by Thomas Hardy, “Far from the madding crowd” and Isabel Archer is the main character in the novel by Henry James “The portrait of a lady.”
In chapter 42 in "The Portrait of a Lady" Isabel introspects her life. Henry James has an intention to rationalise the act of Isabel. She is an epitome of American innocence struggling against European experience. However, the reader is hardly convinced, but the reflections of Isabel as the “central consciousness” to understand herself are honest. Isabel had three suitors, and she makes a wrong choice.
In “Far From the Madding Crowd” Bathsheba also had three suitors and she also makes a wrong decision. Isabel is educated aristocrate girl from US while Bathsheba is from the countryside of England called Wessex. Isabel selects Gilbert Osmond and Bathsheba opts for Sergeant Troy as their life partners. Osmond and Troy were already having an affair with the women of low stature, Merle and Fenny respectively.
What women look for in a man? Why a prudent pretty girl would make a wrong choice? No, they are not at fault. Osmond and Troy represent archetype 'sly and greedy male'. They know how to entice pretty and rich girls. They play romantic tricks to win the heart and squeeze the flesh and money out of their beloved. Both women felt immense pleasure in squandering their inherited fortune. The inheritance was a good gesture of some distant relative. It sat on their conscience, so they lavishly bestowed it on their Prince Charming. They did not care if their spouse gamble or buy a rare piece of art. Bathsheba in chapter xxv draws various conclusions. “Idiosyncrasy and vicissitude had combined to stamp Sergeant Troy as an exceptional being.” They believed every word their beloved spoke to flatter them. When all the money was exhausted the true characters of their beloved husbands were disclosed, but by that time, it was too late.
In the movie “Far from the madding crowd”, Bathsheba Everdene says, “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language chiefly made by men to express theirs.” They are not a victim of destiny; they are victims of their frailty. Hamlet saw this frailty in his mother Gertrude when she chose a goat-man over a sun god.
The suffering of a woman who makes a wrong choice is an “active condition”. She has an urge to develop and beat the circumstances. She finds a way to get rid of the relationship that has become a burden. They cannot carry it forever. Feminine pride is distinct from masculine pride. Feminine pride is hidden underneath her “identity” and no woman compromises on that, even if her self-esteem is low due to an immoral act. Man’s pride is in “Self”. If his self-esteem is poor, he loses his pride. They reflect to consciousness in different ways, which defines the basic character.
Either we may presume about the author’s intention or we may draw our own conclusions. Ernest Hemingway probably had this view in mind when he wrote, "books should be judged by those who read them—not explained by the writer.” According to new criticism author’s real intention is to create a work of art and reader can draw his own interpretation (Wimsatt and Beardsley essay “intentional fallacy”). The author is dead once the book is completed. His opinion then is as good as that of others. Thomas Hardy and Henry James have already put their intention in their work. Reading literature is not an exercise to decipher the message of the author, but an experience to find the solution and perspective about the world around us. How does it matter if deceased cousin Minny Temple inspired the character of Isabel Archer?
Isabel conceives a deep mistrust for her husband. She is suffered by deception. She thought she could change-as he wanted. “She was, after all, herself- she couldn’t help that;” So she stops pretending.
A woman is obsessed to occupy the mind of the man she loves. A clever man pretends the privilege and defeats the objective. He is only interested in her pretty appearance and not her ideas. When a husband realises that he is unable to regulate the emotions of his wife, there is nothing left but to hate her. Therefore, Isabel generously renounces everything and goes to Rome, to look for answers.Henry James has left her heroine 'in the air'. The 'whole' of anything can never be told. According to Joseph Conrad, it makes the ending "life-like". Life itself is incomplete and inconclusive.
Thomas Hardy makes a happy ending.Bathsheba and Oak are together finally. James Wright says “The scheme is charmingly neat; it is satanically false to Hardy.”
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© Vipin Behari Goyal