***Group Read: The Portrait of a Lady, Chapters 13-33

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***Group Read: The Portrait of a Lady, Chapters 13-33

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1lauralkeet
Bearbeitet: Mrz. 22, 2011, 8:46pm

The third in our series of threads ...
oh darn, the thread title is SUPPOSED to say Chapters 23-33

Related threads: General * Chapters 1-11 * Chapters 12-22

Reference: Sparknotes for this book. An excerpt from the analysis of Chapters 20-24:
This section initiates a new phase of the novel, which centers on Isabel's wealth and Merle's scheme to marry her to Gilbert Osmond. This scheme becomes more and more obvious to the reader throughout this section, just as it remains entirely opaque to Isabel, who believes that Merle is her friend and that Osmond is the wonderful and brilliant man Merle says he is.
...
James uses a number of literary techniques to make certain that the reader will find Osmond and Merle increasingly sinister throughout these chapters.
...
The Portrait of a Lady is a very sedate novel in terms of action: narrative developments occur slowly, and when they do occur, they are rarely exciting in the conventional sense. The novel is given the pace of the upper- class drawing rooms it portrays, and as a result, it is lacking in visceral excitement. One of the ways in which James sustains the reader's interest as his slow-paced story develops is to propose questions and mysteries and then to delay the answers for a great many chapters. Will Isabel marry? What will she do with her independence? Characters are often introduced and then dismissed, and we are left wondering: what will become of Lord Warburton? Of Caspar Goodwood? Of Henrietta? In this way, James keeps the reader reading, even when his plot seems to lack some of the other elements that normally draw people into a work of fiction.

2lauralkeet
Mrz. 22, 2011, 8:47pm

I am nearly finished with this section and our collective hunch about Merle is spot on. Full marks to billiejean, for expressing her suspicions early on.

3billiejean
Bearbeitet: Mrz. 23, 2011, 9:28am

I have to say that I still do not fully understand Merle. Maybe she is just bored, and she finds it interesting to manipulate people.

Ralph has the plan of just sitting back while Isabel explores the world. He feels like if he warns her, she will not listen. I think he is right there. What I don't understand is how did Osmond succeed? Because he needs her financially? Or he has an exciting personality? (I did not really see it that way, although I do think there was a reference to it.) The end of this section of chapters could have used maybe a little more explanation for me.

I am eager to read on and find out what happens next!

By the way, I have been enjoying the Sparknotes commentary so much! Thanks for putting that on every thread, Laura!
--BJ

4lauralkeet
Mrz. 23, 2011, 1:03pm

You're welcome, BJ. Beware though, should you go directly to the Sparknotes site, because they are not shy about spoilers. Early on I looked at the "characters" section and knew immediately about an upcoming plot development. I have learned to go to the summary & analysis section only, and only to the first chapters in our grouping. Once there I scroll past the plot summary with my eyes half closed, to get to the analysis. I only do this once I've read those chapters. I find some interesting bits, and I get outta there. Glad it's helpful! The Sparknotes folks are proving to be more erudite than I could ever possibly be :)

5billiejean
Mrz. 23, 2011, 2:04pm

Yeah, I never could get as much out of a book as they can. But I love seeing their thoughts.
--BJ

6bohemima
Mrz. 23, 2011, 6:58pm

You know, this is really a pretty depressing book so far. I mean: here's Isabel, supposedly so intelligent and observant, just being completely manipulated here--but that's just my take on it. I think her somewhat justifiable pride and vanity about her own brain power is leading her into very thorny territory. Not to say I think she deserves a bad fate simply because she's got a biggish sort of ego, but rather to say that it's too bad that she doesn't have more social intelligence.

Not sure why Osmond succeeds here. Does she find him challenging? Is she flattered that with his exquisite taste, he's picked her out as the pearl beyond price? Hmmm....I'm sounding angry with her, but I'm not, really. Just a bit exasperated.

And along the way, I've been impressed by James's insights into motivation and especially into the minds of women.

7billiejean
Mrz. 23, 2011, 7:27pm

I agree and I think that maybe because she does have a kind of big ego could explain why she does not realize that she is being manipulated. It all seemed a little too easy after all the other men had gone through, though.
--BJ

8lauralkeet
Mrz. 23, 2011, 8:54pm

>6 bohemima:,7: I know what you mean. I can't understand how she could turn down Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood, professing a desire for independence, and then be taken in by Gilbert Osmond. And I was really sad when Warburton turned up again, still so obviously smitten with Isabel. Why she turned him down, I'll never know. Except that would have resulted in quite a different book ;)

9Donna828
Bearbeitet: Mrz. 23, 2011, 9:42pm

Thank you, Laura, for providing the Sparknotes references to help guide our discussion.

I'm pretty clueless as to what is motivating Madame Merle in her matchmaking scheme. But it looks like she succeeded! I feel slightly cheated. Where is the proposal and acceptance? We have Gilbert professing his love and Isabel running off for a year or so following her pattern of wanting to see the world rather than get married. And then all of a sudden she's back announcing her engagement. Did I miss something? I listened to part of this on audio which is not the best way for me to follow a story.

James uses a number of literary techniques to make certain that the reader will find Osmond and Merle increasingly sinister throughout these chapters.

True, but none was so obvious as the assertion by Gilbert's sis, the Countess to Madame Merle: "You are capable of anything, you and Osmond. I don't mean Osmond by himself, and I don't mean you by yourself. But together you are dangerous--like some chemical combination."

It is true that the story lacks excitement, but I find myself eager to read ahead to satisfy my curiosity.

10lauralkeet
Mrz. 23, 2011, 9:52pm

>9 Donna828:: And then all of a sudden she's back announcing her engagement. Did I miss something?
No you didn't ... I have found a couple of places where significant time passes in that white space between the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next.

And like Donna, I'm not sure why but I'm drawn to this book and just want to keep reading.

11billiejean
Mrz. 24, 2011, 1:10am

I have been thinking about why we did not see the proposal. The only thing I could come up with was that James wanted the reader to feel as "sneaked up on" or caught off guard as the friends and relatives who did not approve. But I did feel cheated not to get more of an explanation.
--BJ

12bohemima
Mrz. 24, 2011, 2:48pm

>11 billiejean:: Perhaps you're right about James wanting us to be caught off guard, BJ. Or maybe there's some sort of plot or character pay-off later on that would be ineffective if we saw the proposal. Frankly I can't imagine that supercilious snob conveying enough emotion to convince our heroine to marry him.

And here's what struck me last night: Here's this young woman, who's intelligent, beautiful, supposedly witty and clever, and rich into the bargain. She has gathered four eminently eligible suitors (I count Ralph in here because an infant would recognize the sincerity of his love for her), and yet unerringly picks out the worst possible one to marry. What is wrong with her?

Also, we get from the Sparks, and from many other sources I've seen, that this novel is about old European culture successfully corrupting or in some way spoiling young, supposedly innocent, American culture. But...Ralph, Mrs. Touchett, Mr. Touchett, Madame Merle, and Osmond are all Americans. So I'm not sure that particular bit of analysis stands up to scrutiny. What do you all think? It seems to me that these characters have gone to Europe and not been corrupted or spoiled, but rather so that they could have freer reign for their actions.

13billiejean
Mrz. 24, 2011, 4:16pm

Your right, they are all Americans! I thought it was interesting that so many moved to the new culture and then sought each other out in all of the different countries. I guess Lord Warburton was the only European, and he seems like a wonderful person. So I guess I don't see that theme either.

I still do not understand why Isabel chose Mr Osmond. He seems such a nonentity to me. Maybe it all will be explained later. Maybe Madame Merle had some sort of insight into Isabel from their friendship that she was able to pass on to Osmond.
--BJ

14Smiler69
Bearbeitet: Mrz. 24, 2011, 7:04pm

#6 I agree with you Gail that it's kind of depressing seeing this supposedly strong-willed, intelligent young woman being ensnared like this and successfully so too, it seems.

#8 My guess for why she chose Osmond is that she probably thinks that she's made an *original* and more romantic choice. She didn't fall for the obvious choice, Lord Warburton—the suitor that most women in their right minds would be thrilled to marry, nor did she choose the man who's willing to cross the oceans for her. Marrying a poor aesthete must seem to her like a noble thing to do.

#11-12 I too was shocked to see the engagement appear out of the blue, and I think billiejean's idea that James wanted the reader to be caught off guard, much as Isabel's friends and family were, is probably just so. I get the feeling that James made the choice of glossing over the year of travel so that we can fill in the blanks. In effect, he's probably saying MORE by choosing to say barely anything at all. As I see it, she's traveled around for a year, and seen all she wanted to see and was ready to move on to the next thing. She's a modern gal that way—consumes and assimilates everything quickly and gets bored quickly. I'm ashamed to say that some part of me understands Isabel all too well. I grew up reading about 19th century romantic heroines and though I've never been rich like her, I perfectly understand her motivations. Then again, maybe I'm totally wrong and like you've said, James is planning some plot twist down the line.

eta: typos, (argh!) and a few precisions.

15Smiler69
Bearbeitet: Mrz. 24, 2011, 7:09pm

#12-13 As for the fact that they're all Americans, I don't see that as countering the analysis you've mentioned. I've traveled a lot in my lifetime and have encountered many American expats (expats from all over the world, actually) and it's a fact that being in a place—England and Italy in this case—over many months and years, as most of these characters have, been DOES change a person. They are surrounded by a completely different environment and people and culture and food and drink and sounds and smells... you name it. They seek each other out probably because they feel they have that connection of being American but that doesn't prevent them from being strongly influenced by their environment nevertheless. Were they all to return to America they would probably experience culture shock all over again.

Sorry for being so verbose. I dream of being able to write pithy little comments!

eta: minor edits.

16billiejean
Mrz. 24, 2011, 6:59pm

Not verbose, thought-provoking. I enjoyed seeing your take on things, especially the part about the American-European theme. I wonder what James was like?
--BJ

17Smiler69
Mrz. 24, 2011, 7:21pm

Thanks billiejean, that's really nice of you to say.

Good question about James. I don't know about him much, but I've glanced at his wikipedia page and know that he was close friends with Edith Wharton. I also looked her up recently after reading The House of Mirth and it seems that they were both writing about the kinds of lifestyle and people that were most familiar to them. I think one could say that they essentially captured the zeitgest of a certain (upper) class of people in this milieu were culture and travel were... (can't find the English word)... allaient de soi meaning were taken for granted as being a part of life, while of course living within the moral attitudes and conventions of the time. It's likely that there are characters in both James' and Wharton's books that mirror the authors, though would be interesting to find out exactly which. Most likely they've attributed different qualities of each other to several characters in each story, as many authors tend to do.

18billiejean
Mrz. 24, 2011, 7:33pm

Interesting! I haven't read any Edith Wharton yet, but I am hoping to read Age of Innocence later this year.
--BJ

19Smiler69
Mrz. 24, 2011, 8:04pm

I'll be reading The Age of Innocence this year as well. I plan to, in any case!

20billiejean
Mrz. 24, 2011, 8:13pm

I think there will be a group read for it in October or so.
--BJ

21bohemima
Bearbeitet: Mrz. 24, 2011, 10:04pm

Well now, interesting points, Smiler! Your idea about expat society having a big effect on behavior is well-taken. But I don't think the point's proven here or elsewhere in James's work that the social milieu has corrupted these people. I think they would have been corrupt no matter where they were. I think The Age of Innocence will bear this out when you read. I love that book intensely.

Both James and Wharton are deep, deep subjects in and of themselves, leaving their writings aside. I appreciate your bring some of these aspects up--we need all the points of view we can get, to make our understanding better.

ETA: There's a character in the Wharton book that proves your point precisely, Smiler. Her name is Countess Oulenska---she's been an expat and returns home, where she's certainly uncomfortably unsure of her position and the effect of her actions. I'll look forward to your take on her situation when you read it, as well as your impressions of the book as a whole.

22AnneDC
Mrz. 25, 2011, 3:17pm



Besides the surprise factor of Isabel's engagement and the fact that we don't get to see the actual proposal, what strikes me even more is that, so far at least, because of this we don't get to see what Isabel is thinking about the decision or why she made it--which is kind of interesting because throughout the book we get so much information (some might say too much information)about Isabel's thoughts. So far at least we only get to see the engagement based on how other people respond to it--Caspar, Mrs. Touchett, Ralph. Isabel's voice is almost silent. I'm sure this is intentional by James, and maybe more will unfold later. I am dying to know what changed her mind and why she decided that this particular proposal was worth sacrificing her independence for.

One nagging question I have had for a while is what the unstated relationship between Madame Merle and Osmond is, because there seems to be something beneath the surface that I can't quite grasp. I'm not sure why she wants to help him and what is in it for her.

I too still feel like I am trying to sort out the American/European theme, and how all these expats fit into it. So far, I feel like only Henrietta and Caspar Goodwood, and Isabel's Albany relatives, can really be said to clearly represent "Americans." Lord Warburton is the only really English person we encounter, and I can't think of any other Europeans (the Italian Count that married Amy Osmond, but we don't really meet him). Unless some European characters surface really soon, I am inclined to think that the contrast James intends is between "Americans" and "American expats influenced by Europe." Henrietta notes that Isabel has already changed after spending only a very short time in England, and that suggests to me that the expat community can't really be seen as possessing whatever "American" virtues/vices James intended to highlight. I think Osmond would be a perfect example of "European decadence and sophistication" even though he is an American in theory.

23Smiler69
Mrz. 25, 2011, 3:30pm

#21 Gail, now I can't wait to read The Age of Innocence, but still, I'll think I'll wait at least a couple of months before I get to that one. I've been reviewing everything I've been reading lately, so it's almost a sure bet I'll do the same with that one.

#22 You raise a lot of good points Anne. Especially about the lack of insight we have into Isabel's thoughts through this portion of events. I too keep wondering what ties Madame Merle and Osmond might have, and even started imagining that maybe they'd had an affair and she'd abandoned their love child with him! lol. At this point, anything goes I guess...

24lauralkeet
Mrz. 25, 2011, 9:37pm

It is strange how the Merle-Osmond relationship isn't explained.

I'm also intrigued by the comparison between Henry James and Edith Wharton. Wharton is one of my favorite authors and I love how each of them write about an adopted country (for her, France).

On the subject of American/European themes ... I just reread the Sparknotes excerpt on our first thread. Reproducing a bit of it here:
The main theme of Portrait of a Lady is the conflict between individualism (represented here by Isabel Archer's "independence") and social custom.
...
It is also important to note that Portrait of a Lady is set almost entirely among a group of Americans who live in Europe, and the novel's most significant secondary theme is the contrast between the idea of Europe and the idea of America, and how those ideas are negotiated in the minds of the expatriated Americans. In a very general sense, James uses the idea of America to represent innocence, individualism, optimism, and action, while Europe tends to represent sophistication, social convention, decadence, and tradition.

So the primary theme is individualism vs. social custom. The America/European contrast is a secondary theme, but note how it's not a contrast between Americans and Europeans; rather, the "ideas" of each place in the minds of expats. That fits with Anne's comment, I am inclined to think that the contrast James intends is between "Americans" and "American expats influenced by Europe."

25BookAngel_a
Mrz. 29, 2011, 5:51pm

Well, I seem to be lagging ever behind all of you...but I just finished this section. The Osmond-Isabel relationship is quite depressing to watch.

My theory is that the other two suitors were more powerful than Isabel and she was afraid they would control her. In this instance, Osmond seems like a nobody, who's poor and needs help. By loving him, she will be helping him and thus trying to control him. So he seems less intimidating to her. However, she apparently doesn't realize that he is probably only using her, and I guess he has some deep dark secret too.

Reminds me of a book I read a long time ago about women who keep falling for bad men: Women Who Love Too Much lol....

26Donna828
Mrz. 29, 2011, 8:14pm

This book reminds me of Middlemarch and Dorothea's disastrous marriage. With the limited courtships that were common in these days, it's a wonder that there were any successful unions!

I like your theory, Angela. Hmmm....deep dark secret. ;-)

27lauralkeet
Mrz. 29, 2011, 9:47pm

Angela, the great thing about these threads is that you can join anytime! And I'm happy to bounce around.

I like your theory about power too. Echoing Donna's hmmm ... :)

28ALWINN
Mrz. 30, 2011, 10:19am

#26 you know I was kinda thinking the same thing about this book and Middlemarch. Our ladies had several different men to choose from and chooses the worst one.