The Ethics of Reading: The Struggle for Subjectivity in The Portrait of a Lady
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Criticism 44.2 (2002) 139-160

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The Ethics of Reading:
The Struggle for Subjectivity in The Portrait of a Lady

Laurel Bollinger

When she tells a shocked Henrietta Stackpole that her husband cannot read, the Countess Gemini becomes an almost comic instance of what by this point has become a recurrent pattern in James's The Portrait of a Lady: women figured in terms of written language, but bound to men unable—or unwilling—to "read" them. James offers several playful examples of this trope: Lydia Touchett, whose husband finds her telegrams inscrutable; Lilian Ludlow, whom Edmund Ludlow deliberately misunderstands in order to be funny; and the appropriately named Lady Pensil, who writes, though her brother, Mr. Bantling, seldom reads her works, claiming "I don't go in much for poetry." 1 However, James's figural language also marks the novel's central concern: Gilbert Osmond's villainy, constituted in part through his refusal to read Isabel.

Reading—as metaphor and as practice—greatly concerned James, as he makes clear in the Prefaces to the New York Edition of his works. His theory of reading emerges most clearly in the Preface to the volume containing "The Turn of the Screw," which he calls "an amusette to catch those not easily caught." James considers the aesthetic effect of the story to lie in his deliberate withholding of any particulars regarding the intentions of the two ghosts. Instead, the reader is to supply those particulars: "Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications." 2 By refusing to offer specifics, he hopes to avoid what Hannah Arendt would later, in a radically different context, term "the banality of evil": 3 each reader will establish what is for that reader the worst imaginable evil the ghosts could perpetrate, preventing the evil from, as James puts it, "shrink[ing] to the compass of some particular brutality, some particular immorality, some particular infamy portrayed." 4 James describes as "a success apparently beyond my liveliest hope" the fact that he has been "assailed" by critics and readers "with the charge of a monstrous emphasis, the charge of all indecently expatiating." 5 In other words, success depends on producing a controlled misreading—he has [End Page 139] "caught" readers by compelling them to forge an image of evil from their own minds, not from the writer's, which they then project onto the text itself. As Susanne Kappeler says of James's work generally, "[t]he contract of confidence and listening," which she describes as implicit in the Realist novelists' narrative voice, "has been replaced through the constitution of the game, which implies a symmetry which the telling of the truth could certainly never have. Writer and reader are partners on equal terms." 6 The game lies in James's thus forcing his readers to reveal their own sensibilities and experiences rather than perceiving his, and he insists that his own "values are positively all blanks" in the story. 7 The tale's "truth," therefore, lies in the mind of the reader, for whom James constructs the story as a sort of Rorschach test.

While we must not too hastily assume that his Preface to one volume offers interpretive cues to the others, James makes parallel claims about the reader's role in other Prefaces. In the Preface to The Portrait, he says the reader pays the writer but a "'living wage,'" which he describes as "the reader's grant of the least possible quantity of attention required for consciousness of a 'spell.'" 8 At the same time, James makes clear that he wants more, that such limited attention is not what a writer truly desires:

The occasional charming 'tip' is an act of his intelligence over and beyond this, a golden apple, for the writer's lap, straight from the wind-stirred tree. The artist may of course, in wanton moods, dream of some Paradise (for art) where the direct appeal to the intelligence might be legalized; for to such extravagances as these...