The Tyranny of Henry James

jrlewis's picture

In our discussion of The Portrait of a Lady, Anne asked our class to consider “who is the tyrant” of the novel.  She was inquiring what character or concept constrained the formerly free and independent character of Isabel Archer.  A discussion ensued about whether Gilbert Osmond or Isabel Archer’s imagination was the tyrant.  I would like to propose a third interpretation; Henry James, himself, is the great tyrant of his own novel. 

As the author of the novel, Henry James is the creator of both Gilbert Osmond and Isabel Archer’s imagination; he is the source of their tyranny.  He tells their tale through a not directly, but rather through a narrator.  The style of narration initially appears to be third person omniscient; however, it is actually first person omniscient.  The narrator rarely interjects his own opinions into his account of the text.  However, on the occasions that the narrator makes an I-statement; it is at the most delicate moments of the tale.  In the second to last scene of the novel, the narrator comments in the first person on the actions and thoughts of Isabel Archer.  He expresses uncertainty, a lack of knowledge about her and her motives.  This strange behavior of the narrator is actually a reflection of the author.  So Henry James is the true tyrant of the text.  His imagination has created, chiseled, and conveyed the story to his reader. 

We, the readers, are subjects of Henry James’ imagination.  Therefore, it is important to appreciate how the reader relates to the author and text.  The reader approaches a text by willingly suspending their disbelief.  This is the reader’s acceptance of the rules of the fictional world created by the author in order to better appreciate the text.  Suspension of disbelief can occur at several levels.  The reader of a novel transforms the words on the page into images of characters and settings.  Then, the reader must take on the foundations of the fictional reality differing gravitational laws, technological advances, cultures and much more. This act of penetrating into another reality requires a conscious choice on the part of the reader.  It is a little risky to allow oneself to be gullible, however; the reward promised by literature is often worthwhile.

c o young

So the question is: what is the fate of the reader, who makes themselves, vulnerable to Henry James?  Literary critic Cynthia Ozick replies, “I offer myself as an Extreme and Hideous Example of Premature Exposure to Henry James… I was listening to the Lesson of the Master at the wrong time... and this cost me my youth,” (Ozick) The young, naïve, or vulnerable reader takes James’ texts completely seriously.  “The Jamesian web is a very light one binding here and there without the reader being fully aware until he is truly caught,” (Winterson, 73).  The web is so light that that naïve reader never feels it.  It is only the mature reader, the older Cynthia Ozick, who recognizes the trap in the text.  They are aware of James’ tyranny and may even push back against it.  

c o old

The style of writing that Henry James employs in the Portrait of a Lady prevents the reader from performing a superficial study of his text. He employs dramatic irony, foreshadowing, and subtle suggestion to create a rich layered text.  He is forcing his reader to take the time to make a complete study of the novel.  Without such work, the reader will misinterpret the text.  Such a deep study of the text is a habit of the mature reader. The reader’s experience with the text parallels the protagonist’s story.  The author is teaching his heroine and her reader the same lesson; they are learning together over the course of the novel.  The form of the text follows its function.

Perhaps the greatest fault of the novel’s heroine is her penchant for a superficial reading of other characters.  She easily believes her first impressions, giving them a higher priority than the richer and better-developed portraits that others offer her.  “With all her love of knowledge, Isabel had a natural shrinking from raising curtains and looking into unlighted corners.  The love of knowledge coexisted in her mind with still tenderer love of ignorance,” (James, 203).  She misunderstands the intentions of others. 

I would like to turn the parallel between Isabel and the reader into an analogy.  As Isabel is to the reader, the author is to Gilbert Osmond.  The author and reader are of opposite genders.  The reader is married to the author, subject to his wish and whim.  Henry James is a husband who likes to exercise his control; he takes pride in his ability to manipulate his wife.  However, his choices influence the reader; they do not determine the reader’s interpretation of his text.  “The writing of literature and the interpretations of its meanings (the results of the encounter between text and reader, code and de-coder which we call literary criticism and literary theory) generate new accounts,” (Dalke).  The meaning made of the text is the fruit of the union between the author and reader.  The baby of the husband and wife is an interpretation of the text. The child text is made of the genes and memes of the man and woman.  The marriage and child are a metaphor for reader response theory. 

A specific example of the generative power of the interaction between the reader and the text is a conversation between Isabel Archer and Caspar Goodwood.  In the penultimate scene of the novel, Isabelle realizes what she means to.  She is his love object and he desires to possess her at the risk of violating social institutions such as marriage.  Marriage, for Isabel, is not simply a convention; it is a promise.  She recognizes that to be with Goodwood, she must break her promise; this act she finds unacceptable.  Her promise, her marriage is an important part of her identity; to renounce it would destroy her portrait of herself.  The narrator asserts, “I know not whether she believed everything that he said; but she believed that to let him take her in his arms would be the next best thing to dying,” (Jmes, 604).  The potential loss of identity is what she refers to in the quote above as “the next best thing to dying.”  So the final scene of the novel informs the reader that Isabel is to return to her husband. 

The ending of The Portrait of a Lady is a call to the reader to return and subject themselves to Henry James’ tyranny.  Both James and Osmond recognize that a tyrant who has no subjects is powerless.  So it is the reader’s choice to enter into a union with James.  Knowing what you now know, would you, dear reader?


Works Cited

Dalke, Anne, “Why Words Arise—and Wherefore: Literature and Literary Theory as Forms of Exploration.” Serendip. 3 March 2010

James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. Signet Classics: New York. 2007

Ozick, Cynthia. "The Lesson of the Master." Art and Ardor 1982

Winterson, Jeanette. "A Gift of Wings." Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery.Vintage International: New York 1997


Anne Dalke's picture


So the first thing I did, in response to your provocative essay, was an etymological search; I wanted to figure out what the historical link was between "author" and "authority." What I found out is that "author" comes f. augre--to make, to grow, originate. So an author is an inventor or an originator, someone who makes something. So far, so good. An "authority," though, is one who has the "power to enforce obedience." Wherefrom comes such awe-ful power?

I suppose it comes from creativity: we give ourselves over -- you like to say (following Samuel Taylor Coleridge) to  "willingly suspend our disbelief," to take the risk of making ourselves "gullible" -- in order to enter the creator's imaginative work. And so, thereby, we grant the author authority over our own imagination; we let them guide and script our mind-wanderings. Your observation that "a tyrant who has no subjects is powerless" is quite apt here, as well as quite Hegelian: it was he who taught us that, as you need a master to be enslaved, so you need slaves to be a master. Without our assent, then, authors are powerless to enforce our obedience.
But the outcome of our discussions of "The Turn of the Screw" and "The Real Thing" were -- contrariwise -- lessons about being skeptical readers, about not trusting the teller of the tale, not giving ourselves gullibly over, but reading, rather, resistently. To read either story carefully is to realize that each narrator is unreliable. So on what grounds do you shift the ground, to say that the narrator in The Portrait of a Lady is doing something different: trying to dupe us, to tyrannize over us? What would you say to the argument (following the logic of the two tales) that James actually is using Isabel Archer's experience to warn us against returning to the "husband" that is (analogous to) the tyrannical author? That hers is a tale cautioning us against getting caught as she has been caught? Her choices (in your language, again) "influence the reader; they do not determine" what the reader will do with the text. Rather than hear the ending of The Portrait of a Lady as a "call" to subject ourselves to the tyranny of the author, we could hear clearly, instead, the advice to abjure.
In a blog entry called Ressentiment Clubhouse, Tim Burke observes that "We throw a lot of classic works at kids that require a forty-year old’s emotional and intellectual experience to really click." That seems to be part of your argument (following Ozick's), too: that you/we shouldn't read James until we are mature enough to handle his complexities, to follow the subtleties of his instruction, not to be led astray.

Where this gets even more complicated (and so interesting!) is in the fact that the creator here is a complexifier, whose invitation to his reader is into ever-darkening and deepening experience, which -- contra Plato -- can never be fully illuminated. You argue that James uses his hippotomine sentences to show us how to do what Isabel Archer failed to do, to read carefully and deeply: "The reader’s experience with the text parallels the protagonist’s story." But part and parcel of the lesson of that deep reading is the realization that such depths will never be plumbed, that James is demonstrating what Hustvedt calls the "heartbreaking difficulty" of capturing "the flux of experience in words."
I would say: not difficulty, but impossibility. We can only gesture in those directions, always falling short. And it is in that shortfall -- of the author, creating, and of the reader, interpreting -- that we find the space to play.

Bryn Mawr College


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