Tuesday, December 7, 2010

For better or worse

Current book: The Portrait of a Lady
Pages read: 500 - 591 (end)

Ok, I'm finally done! (muted cheering) This is even the last book by Henry James, which, frankly...yay.

Gilbert just gets worse after everyone's gone, especially since he realizes that Isabel's been working against his interests in the matter of Pansy's marriage. In retaliation, he sends Pansy away to the convent where she spent much of her youth. A couple of months later, Isabel receives a telegram from Henrietta telling her that Ralph is dying and requesting her presence. Isabel wants to go see him in England, of course, but Gilbert forbids it because he's a vindictive asshole. She discusses the matter with Gilbert's sister, who, though silly, has been a friend. Gilbert's sister reveals (I guess by way of comfort? It's kind of unclear.) that Pansy is actually Gilbert and Madame Merle's illegitimate daughter, not the child of a first marriage as Isabel had previously thought. Madame Merle and Gilbert are, in fact, still having an affair. Gilbert's sister also tells Isabel that Madame Merle persuaded Gilbert to marry Isabel because of her money and the fact that Isabel would be able to provide for and act as a mother to Pansy.

Isabel takes this information as permission to disobey her husband and go to England. She visits Pansy on the way out of the country and asks her to come on the journey, but Pansy, though torn, refuses out of obedience to her father. She also begs Isabel to come back some day. Isabel makes it to England and watches Ralph die. She realizes that she loves him and wishes she would have married him, but clearly it's too late. Afterward, Caspar proposes that she come with him to America and he'll help her to escape Gilbert and her unhappy marriage. She considers it, and almost does so, but in the end, decides against it and departs for Rome without saying goodbye.

Huh. It actually ended up a lot more sympathetic to Isabel than I thought it would. As I've mentioned, James tends to go all cautionary-tale on his young heroines and make it out like they're responsible for their own miseries. To some extent, Isabel is responsible for her own misery in that she could have chosen a better husband earlier on, but was stopped by her need for freedom. At the same time, though, Gilbert Osmund is clearly a punishment that far exceeds the crime. James must, therefore, be remarking upon the fact that women are powerless in their marriages, and that the level of control their husbands have can be absurd.

I'm a little unclear, though, on what the point of Isabel's going back to Rome at the close of the novel is really supposed to be. She seems to go back out of a sense of duty, to both Pansy and to the conventions of society, but I don't know why it is that that duty outweighs every shred of her personal happiness. She passes up the chance to go with Caspar in order to return to certain misery. It's true that she doesn't love Caspar, so perhaps things wouldn't improve, but it would be worth a shot considering the emotional abuse she would be escaping.

I don't know that it's worthy of the list. It's not bad, but I think there are other books that might communicate the same idea from the time period just as well. It seems sort of unremarkable. Daisy Miller is more compelling, I'd say, and also not 600 pages long.

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