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MonkeyNotes-Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
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In Italy, Isabel encounters two or three more ways of being a woman. The first is that lived by the impossibly innocent Pansy Osmond, left in a convent during all of her childhood and taken out when her dilettante father and her scheming mother decide that she has been in long enough and is now "done." As with her attraction to the Misses Molyneux, Isabel is attracted by the innocence of Pansy Osmond. Perhaps this is so because she came from a childhood of such parental neglect. To see Pansy so well taken care of, so obsessively cared for, must have felt comforting to someone who was once abandoned by her governess in a city far from home and unable to say where her wandering father was. The contrary example of a womanís existence is provided by the Countess Gemini. Trapped in a bad marriage, the Countess has responded by exerting all the freedom allowed her: she has taken a series of lovers and has adopted a cynical attitude about the moral world of gender relations. Perhaps a bridge figure between these two extremes is Madame Merle. Isabel admires her unreservedly from the beginning. She finds in Madame Merle the accomplished woman of the world, enjoying both her independence and a valuable place in the elite social circles of Europe.

In Isabel Archerís downfall, Henry James reveals several of the dominant ideas present throughout his fiction. First, it is quite clear that the English country house estate is the best of all possible worlds for the author. In leaving Gardencourt for a tour of Europe, Isabel was stepping out of the world which perfectly balanced rational conventionality and indulgence of liberty. She was moving into a world of such severe social constraint that good sense and good fellow feeling were regarded as provincial sentimentalities. Second, it seems impossible for Henry James to imagine a good marriage. That of the Touchetts is functional, but it makes Mr. Touchett unhappy and Mrs. Touchett an eccentric. That of the Countess Gemini is dry with self-indulgence and trapped meanness. That of Madame Merle was also dreadfully unhappy. While marriage seems to be the only respectable occupation for a woman, it is one which certainly ends her career as a semi-free agent. The best example of this notion is what happens to Henrietta Stackpole, the most intrepid of the Jamesian version of feminism in the novel. While her prospects for happiness with Bob Bantling are brighter than any other characterís in the novel, her plans to marry strike Isabel Archer as a sad capitulation, a giving up on the part of her adventuresome friend.


The third and most important element of Jamesí ideas which is revealed in Isabelís downfall is that social constraint always wins out over the impulse to freedom, that freedom is only an idea which, as soon as put into practice, fails utterly. The best possible world for the balance between individual liberty and social constraint is the English country house life where liberal politicians like Lord Warburton retain their country estate while theorizing the need for its dissolution and where ex-Americans like Mr. Touchett can become connoisseurs of English country houses and English teas.

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