Imagining the Spaces Between

MissArcher2's picture

Even for someone who thinks of herself as a “words person,” the dense prose of Mr. Henry James oftentimes feels like a jungle book of riddles. There are often narrative gaps that leave readers guessing as to the specifics of important moments of decision. Mixed in with these spaces for interpretation, however, are stunningly vivid images that bring Isabel Archer’s world to life. Inspired by Ralph Touchett’s gallery at Gardencourt and because I have spent most of my academic career working with words, I wanted to pursue a project in which I would express either my vision of James’ vivid descriptions or an interpretation of the “spaces between” in The Portrait of a Lady through images. As I looked back over our class notes to get started, I stumbled across this gem: “The only way for Isabel to escape her destiny is to refuse proposals that she was expected to take.” Struck by the poignancy of this remark, I decided right then to portray, through images, Isabel Archer’s moments of refusal, spoken and unspoken: that is, moments in which our heroine (if we can call her that) took control of her destiny by rejecting the path that she was expected to take.


 “You’re too fond of your own ways.”

“Yes, I think I’m very fond of them. But I always want to know the things one shouldn’t do.”

“So as to do them?” asked her aunt.

“So as to choose,” said Isabel.

It’s clear from the very beginning that Isabel Archer is interested in making her own decisions rather than blindly following the path that is set out for her. This image struck me as a fitting representation of the young lady early in the novel—she is confronted with an array of choices, and each decision she makes will form the path of her life, just like in the picture, where there are tons of parts scattered around a confused-looking figure who needs to figure out what goes where in order to assemble them into a functioning bicycle.


She would have given her little finger at that moment to feel strongly and simply the impulse to answer: "Lord Warburton, it's impossible for me to do better in this wonderful world, I think, than commit myself, very gratefully, to your loyalty." But though she was lost in admiration of her opportunity she managed to move back into the deepest shade of it, even as some wild, caught creature in a vast cage.

The first act of defiance we see from Miss Archer comes when she rejects Lord Warburton’s proposal of marriage. Isabel even acknowledges that such a prompt proposal from a wealthy, handsome English lord is every American girl’s dream and possibly even their primary reason for traveling to England in the first place.  She is able to admire this opportunity being presented to her at the same time as she knows she cannot marry him, and we discussed in class that she is almost observing this moment as if it were happening to someone else—she is in the shadows, watching her shell speak with Lord Warburton. That discussion is what made this image feel so right to represent the situation. Rather than the scene of a proposal, we are viewing shadows that appear to be engaging in that act, and thus have the same sense of removal from the image that Isabel had from her situation.


“An ummarried woman--a girl of your age--isn't independent. There are all sorts of things she can't do. She's hampered at every step."

Caspar Goodwood utters this warning when Isabel rejects his own proposal of marriage to try and convince her to choose otherwise. Again, the societal expectation is that Isabel will submit to the proposal of marriage (though the reader, by that point, is prepared for Isabel to do just about anything). I was drawn to this image of a much older couple performing a pairs-figure-skating move for several reasons—the first being that in pairs skating the woman often performs dangerous spins or jumps whose outcome depends solely on the strength and attention of the man. A female skater might be tossed up into the air not to land on her own two feet but to hope she is caught by her partner or, like the couple in this image, swung low across the ice in a circle. If he were to let go of her hand, it would be she and not him who could be gravely injured, and there is nothing she could do to prevent his letting go. She, like the unmarried woman of whom Caspar Goodwood speaks, is not independent. She depends on her male partner for her livelihood-and her life. The other aspect of this image that was so compelling is the age of its subjects—figure skaters at the highest level are often in their teens and at the 2010 Olympics the “comeback” of a couple in their 30’s was considered impressive. The advanced age of this couple serves to illustrate the perpetuation of women's dependence on men.


 “You’re going to be put in a cage.”

“If I like my cage, that needn’t trouble you!”

Though her moment of decision is absent from the text, at a certain point it becomes clear that Isabel has chosen to marry Gilbert Osmond. This is just as much a denunciation of her expected path as the refusing of proposals earlier in the text, and Isabel goes against the wishes of everyone in her life (with the exception of dear Madame Merle, of course) in marrying Osmond. This quote is from an exchange with her cousin Ralph Touchett, who advocates for the freedom that Isabel cited in rejecting her first two suitors. She retorts that if she is happy with her decision not to be free, then it is of no consequence. Of course, we keep reading to find that Isabel is not forever contented by her choice—a debate for a different image. This image of a bird fleeing its cage captured me as a representation of this choice that Isabel makes in a very ironic way: Isabel has gone willingly into a cage, thinking she will like it, whereas birds often flee their cages in blind pursuit of freedom only to return or die because they do not know how to fend for themselves in the world.


"What should you like me to do?" her companion softly demanded. The question was a terrible one, and Isabel took refuge in timorous vagueness. "To remember all the pleasure it's in your power to give your father." "To marry some one else, you mean-if he should ask me?" For a moment Isabel's answer caused itself to be waited for; then she heard herself utter it in the stillness that Pansy's attention seemed to make. "Yes-to marry some one else." The child's eyes grew more penetrating; Isabel believed she was doubting her sincerity, and the impression took force from her slowly getting up from her cushion. She stood there a moment with her small hands unclasped and then quavered out: "Well, I hope no one will ask me!"

Women in the time of Henry James were expected to demur unwaveringly to their husbands, but knowing that Pansy does not want to marry Warburton but Edward Rosier, Isabel chooses to, in her own way, support Pansy’s desires. Though she does not act this out directly, she does not give Lord Warburton the encouragement he is looking for before he proposes to Pansy—and so, he does not. Though this is a moment of defiance for Isabel, I was more interested here in the fact that it is not such a moment for Pansy, and that is why I chose this image of a father and a daughter to represent the situation.  Similarly to the figure skaters, here a girl is completely dependent on a man (this time her father) to make sure she survives. The image is an especially joyful one, however, and I thought that was interesting in conjunction with the line I have quoted about how it is in Pansy’s power to give her father pleasure. It made me think about the definition of power, because I would have said that Pansy had none in this situation, but through the quote reflected in the image, I can imagine differently.


 “I feel very old,” said Isabel.

“You’ll grow young again. That’s how I see you.”

When Isabel learns that Ralph is really going to die, she wants to travel to Gardencourt to see him one last time. Osmond does not want her to go, and they argue. In the end, Isabel defies Osmond and journeys to England to visit her cousin on his deathbed. However, the quote and the image I have chosen to represent this refusal are not directly from their argument or the moment of defiance. They are, instead, from a conversation that takes place between Ralph and Isabel once she has arrived at his side. I thought this line of Isabel’s was telling about how the events of her life have affected her, and that Ralph’s response was one of the most beautiful lines in the book—it’s full of possibility and hope.

While I was reading my favorite fashion blog I came across this picture of a young girl playfully kissing a flower, with an older woman gazing from the background. I see Isabel as both of the ladies in the photograph—she is the older woman gazing at her younger self, trying to find her way back to that happy, carefree state of kissing at flowers. The image is a lovely glimpse into Isabel’s psyche at this point in the novel.

“She looked all about her; she listened a little; then she put her hand on the latch. She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.”

In perhaps her most controversial decision in the novel, Isabel decides to return to Italy—to Osmond—after Ralph Touchett’s death. Caspar Goodwood has surfaced yet again and kisses Isabel in an attempt to tear her away from her life and sweep her away, which is when she has this revelation that she must go back (although careful reading reveals that this decision is true to the character James has developed for our heroine). Willem de Kooning’s painting Door to the River is a beautiful, abstract representation of a door that embodies the spirit of Isabel’s decision. The abstract quality conveys the lack of clarity about what lies beyond it, but it’s open, and she knows she must go through. To mark the end of a novel with an open door gives readers the feeling of more possibilities for Isabel in the future, and leads to a better understanding of her decision to return home, because we get a sense of how there might be possibilities within that decision besides unhappiness.

Over the course of this project, I’ve been surprised to discover how much you can read into an image. Like this M.C. Escher drawing, it’s all about turning things a different way and opening yourself up to a different perspective. Images that seem to have nothing to do with The Portrait of a Lady can be read through the lens of a quotation and suddenly open up a whole new interpretation of the text. I’m officially in favor of using images to explore words—something I wasn’t sure I would ever say! I enjoyed the way images allowed me to convey an idea about the text that I might not have been able to express in another way.


Images, in order:







7. Feb. 28, 2010 entry.



All quotations taken directly from Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady.


Anne Dalke's picture

Ambiguous Woman

Ambiguous Figures

Miss Archer2--
what pleases me most about this project is the fact that it represents a foray, for you, into new territory: as "word person" trying, for the first time, to experiment with what it might mean to "think with images." Bravo for the risk!....and for what seems, from your report, to represent a clear pay-off: that you have been enabled, through this experimentation, to see into those "spaces off" in a way that -- working w/ words alone -- you might not have been able to.

Affirming that experience, and stepping off from it, I want to go on thinking with you a bit more about the implications and consequences of what you have done. I've just finished asking Penguins whether her experiment -- turning the "ghost scene" from The Portrait of a Lady into a play -- had the effect of clarifying or complexifying the novel, and now I want to ask the same question of your experiment. You say that you've "been surprised to discover how much you can read into an image"; let me push back and ask whether the clarity of an image -- and the clarification it provides -- mightn't actually limit what James intended to be unclear? Whether an image, in other words, is "unassailable" in a way that words might not be? 

Several years ago, on Serendip, I was involved in an extended conversation with a colleague who is both a scientist and an artist, and who I think (you'll see from our exchange) explicitly uses her images to "stop" conversation, to say: "that is what I see. Look, appreciate, but do not ask me to revise. This is my vision." So when you say, on the one hand, that images have enabled you to "open up whole new interpretations of the text," I guess one question that raises for me is whether in doing so they close down others. And so end the play of interpretation that seems so central to James's project, what Hustvedt calls the "heartbreaking difficulty" of capturing "the flux of experience in words"

I think I'm provoked to this series of questions because, of the images you've selected, the ones that work by far the best for me -- that seem most effectively to evoke the "spaces inbetween" in the novel -- are the last two, Willem de Kooning’s more abstract Door to the River (which actually problematizes Isabel's claim that her path is now "very straight") and Escher's insistently turning-about drawing, the way it refuses to allow the reader to settle comfortably into a single perspective.


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