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  • Divorce of a Nation; or, Can Isabel Archer Resist History?
  • Debra MacComb

Isabel Archer’s choice of the “very straight path” ( PL 482) back to Rome and the detestable Gilbert Osmond dismays many modern readers. How, we wonder, could “one so fond of [her] liberty” (PL 30) and so confirmed in her desire to “do great things” (PL 101) seem, in the end, to renounce her freedom and retreat from her fate? James’s aesthetic determination to leave his heroine “en l’air” at this most critical juncture because “the whole of anything is never told” ( CN 15) leaves her also at the mercy of many, often punishing, explanations for her return. Thus Isabel’s “knowing” (“She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path”) is discounted by critics, her agency transformed instead into a variety of personal and moral infirmities: her “fear” of sexuality, her “treacherous servility,” her fastidious aversion to publicity, her inability to grapple with the difficulties of divorce law. 1 But to read defeat—whatever its source—into Isabel’s action is also to assume that Osmond and the ancient city of Rome function inevitably as the loci of subjection and adherence to empty form and, more importantly, that Caspar Goodwood and America represent her best chance for freedom and personal fulfillment. Instead, I would like to suggest a reading of The Portrait of a Lady as James’s critique of America’s celebrated tendency to elevate individual liberty over obligation or tradition and its faith that radical breaks—for which the American War for Independence is paradigmatic—are sufficient to secure such liberty. Thus viewed, Henrietta Stackpole’s counsel to make use of the western states’ divorce laws and Goodwood’s assertion that “a woman made to suffer is justified in anything” to free herself in fact offer Isabel only illusions of freedom (PL 481). Their “solutions” neglect her abiding sense of responsibility in the matter of her marriage and fail to recognize that marriage itself, with its institutionalized inequalities, is the focus of her [End Page 129] concern, and not the proprieties of escaping its claims. What Isabel “knows” as she returns to Osmond is that personal liberty cannot be gained by disengagement from struggle, nor can equality in marriage be won by divorce.

As Adeline Tintner points out, only one date is mentioned in The Portrait of a Lady; the date, 1876, which appears twice within the space of a few paragraphs, effectively divides the novel in half, marking as it does the end of James’s focus on Isabel’s several opportunities for love and adventure and the beginning of his attention to the singleness of her fate in marriage. As the date of the official Centennial, the celebration of American independence from Great Britain, the reiteration of 1876 at this point in the narrative marks the irony of Isabel’s situation: the freedom-loving heroine finds herself after a few short years of marriage to be trapped in the “house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation” (353). Indeed, Alfred Habegger goes so far as to characterize Portrait as a “countercentennial novel” insofar as it reveals that the much heralded freedom accorded American women was but an illusory one (180). Certainly, Tintner’s argument that James thought of this novel in terms of the Centennial and of his heroine as the representative American female is persuasive:

James seems to have begun to think about The Portrait in the very year of the Centennial (although he was not actually to write it until 1880), for we have a letter to Howells, dated October 24, 1876, in which he writes, “My novel is to be an Americana,—the adventure in Europe of a female Newman.” James continues to think of Isabel Archer as “an Americana” for he calls her that again in a letter to his brother William dated July 23, 1878, at the time he is “just completing, by the way, a counterpart to D[aisy] M[iller] for the Cornhill.” The counterpart is, of course, “An International Episode,” a specifically Centennial story. James goes on to say, “The ‘great novel...

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pp. 129-148
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