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Imminence and Immanence: Isabel Archer's Temporal Predicament in The Portrait of a Lady Jonathan Warren, University of Toronto That Henry James charges Isabel Archer with a vast potential in The Portrait of a Lady has been richly noted by critics who have exploited the role of the young American girl in connection with James's international theme. Isabel Archer is easily read as an emblem of the future in a landscape of the past. However, a more rigorous analysis reveals that this appreciation is insufficient. Isabel is, most definitely, imbued with futurity, but this aspect is defied by her peculiar attachment to the past. In James's figuring of Isabel's early contexts, in the manner of her description by others, and in her own words Isabel is revealed as an icon of imminence confounded by stasis. Isabel's appeal to futurity is undermined by the fact that the future seems, in this novel, like it will never arrive: James describes Isabel's environment, history, and character as never-changing. Her great promise is persistently suspended and postponed; her potential remains just that, potential. When Isabel finally acts, she thinks that she does so in accordance with her historically futural, but always-postponed role: she promises herself openly to Osmond. In doing so, Isabel appeals to an indeterminate future that no longer exists for her simply because Osmond is not the vastly futural figure that she has imagined him to be. Rather, Osmond is the very essence of past contingency and treachery. Isabel eventually realizes Osmond's and Merle's duplicitous history, and, by doing so, she recognizes that the past is not an unchanging eternity that subsumes the present and forever puts off the future. Isabel's difficult reconciliation of this personally baffling temporal schism, as revealed through her second promise, offers a new explanation of her ultimate choice. The apparent absence of temporal progress, which characterizes Isabel, is an aspect of Jamesian fiction that Georges Poulet, of the so-called Geneva school, has explained as a necessary reduction of the otherwise stupefying immensity of James's sprawling consciousness.1 All considerations of Jamesian time must now The Henry James Review 14 (1993): 1-16 © 1993 by The Johns Hopkins University Press The Henry James Review necessarily engage Poulet's watershed commentaries on the subject.2 That Poulet chooses to focus exclusively on the issue of time is itself exceptional in James studies. Jamesian critics who cite Poulet tend either generally to accept his interpretations of time or to situate his work in other nontemporal contexts.3 This study implicitly questions Poulet's conclusions on Jamesian time specifically. In The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer resists the obliterative onslaught of time only to be confronted with a crisis of understanding that, according to Poulet, such resistance should have prevented. Instead, Isabel's crisis is precipitated by her resistance to time. In this way, Isabel emerges here as a symbol of Poulet's misreading of Jamesian time. From the outset of The Portrait of a Lady, the context of the action is rendered as putatively eternal: eerily undaunted and unaffected by the passage of time. Indeed, the passage of time is not evoked so much as is the idyllic synchrony of the eternal moment, which the tick tock of a progression does not seem to affect ; moreover, in James's figurai language the advance of time is often not a progression at all, but an ancillary—almost aesthetic —aspect of a world that shall not advance out of a plenary instant, an instant that subsumes the temporal and apparently discharges its force.4 The establishing scene provides a fine example of this static aspect: "Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality. . . . From five o'clock to eight is on certain occasions a little eternity; but on such an occasion as this the interval could be only an eternity of pleasure (PL I)." The gathering on the lawn takes place during a little eternity that occupies the present moment between what has waned into the past and what is left. There is certainly...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 1-16
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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