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DESIRE, EMULATION, AND ENVY IN THE PORTRAIT OFA LADY Lahoucine Ouzgane University ofAlberta Our heroine....wandered, as by the wrong side of the wall of a private garden, round the enclosed talents, accomplishments, aptitudes of Madame Merle. She found herself desiring to emulate them, and in twenty such ways, this lady presented herself as a model. "I should like awfullyto be50/" Isabel secretly exclaimed, more than once....It took no great time indeed for her to feel, as the phrase is, under an influence. (The Portrait ofa Lady 1 63) Isabel considered [Osmond] with interest. "You seem to me to be always envying some one. Yesterday it was the Pope; today it's poor Lord Warburton." "My envy's not dangerous....I don't want to destroy the people—1 only want to be them." (The Portrait 251) Henry James' The Portrait ofa Lady (1881) chronicles the stages through which Isabel Archer of Albany moves to become Mrs. Gilbert Osmond ofRome. Most critics agree that the transition in Isabel's life is due to her natural disposition and to the influence ofthe characters around her. But while the nature ofthis influence can be traced directly to Madame Merle's machinations, Isabel's character itselfhas elicited a great deal of analysis. L.C. Knights, for instance, finds "wilfulness as well as vulnerability in the attitudes [Isabel] brings to bear on experience" (12); TonyTannerconcludesthat "[her] theories and imagined versions ofreality Lahoucine Ouzgane115 are generated behind closed doors and closed windows" (76); Juliet McMaster perceives an element ofperversity in Isabel: "On the one hand, like atrue American, she is ardently engaged in life, liberty, and the pursuit ofhappiness; but on the other she is morbidly attracted by their opposites, and devotes herself to death, and immobility, and suffering" (51); Leon Edel (1968) detects egotism in Isabel—but one "which is limited and damaging to the self (111)—unlike Osmond's, which is destructive of other people. Finally, in his essay "I Don't Like Isabel Archer," Marc Bousquet calls Isabel "selfish, naïve, ill-attuned to the feelings of others despite her education, an emblem ofcaprice and poorjudgment" (197). Since the essence ofthe romantic is desire, I suggest that in order to better understand the central event of The Portrait—Isabel's decision to marry Osmond, an action generally characterized as "perverse" or "morbid"—we see Isabel Archer as a subject of what René Girard calls "mimetic desire." According to Girard (1978), "The standard view [of imitation], derived from Plato's mimesis via Aristotle's Poetics, has always excluded one essential human behavior from the types subject to imitation—namely, desire and, more fundamentally still, appropriation" (vii). Central to Girard's thought is the theory of "mimetic" or "triangular desire," developed in his first book Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (1961) and elaborated in his later works:1 a character desires an object, not for itself, but for the value lent to it by the desire ofanother. Don Quixote, for instance, believes that true chivalric existence can be experienced onlythrough acareful imitation ofAmadis ofGaul, who seems to him to personify ideal knightly behavior. Don Quixote's desires are thus "mediated": the subject pursues objects determinedforhim bythe mediator of desire. In this respect, the directions taken and influences exerted by snobbery, vanity, jealousy, emulation, envy, rivalry, resentment, hatred, renunciation, and sacrifice form the center of Girard's critical thinking. "This triangle of subject, object, and mediator," Bruce Bassoff notes, "is similar to Thorstein Veblen's model of 'conspicuous consumption,' where 'keeping up with the Joneses' means desiring what they possess regardless ofthe real value ofthe object" (126). For Girard, however, it is not merely a question ofdesiring what the Joneses possess, but ofdesiring what they themselves appear to be; Girard calls this desire "metaphysical" because it is aimed at the mediator's being. Veblen describes the phenomenon in its 'See especially the third part of Things Hidden since the Foundation ofthe World and chapters 3, 4, and 5 of The Girard Reader. 1 16 Desire, Emulation, andEnvy in "The Portrait ofa Lady " economic manifestations only, but through an extensive analysis ofmajor literary works by Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoyevsky, Girard unravels the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1930-1200
Print ISSN
1075-7201
Pages
pp. 114-134
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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