Sunday, September 13, 2009

Whatever Happens to Isabel Archer?

If we can assume that the lady in Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady" is an Isabel Archer figure if not the Isabel Archer portrayed in the Henry James novel, then Eliot's poem can serve as a kind of answer to the above question. Interestingly, this poem also seems to function as an illustration of what will happen to Prufrock should his indecision become decisive inaction.
The novel The Portrait of a Lady ends with Isabel rejecting Caspar Goodwood's passionate plea (with its attendant passionate kiss) that she leave her cruel and loveless husband Gilbert Osmond and stay with him (Goodwood) instead. Of course, at the time I read of her decision to go back to Rome and to Osmond, I was disappointed, but it made sense for Isabel to do the passionless thing. Anthony Mazzella has argued convincingly that Isabel's rejection of Caspar Goodwood had everything to do with her fears of "annihilation of the mind by the erotic" (611). As Mazzella also mentions, this kiss provokes a sense of "archetypal drowning" (611): "The world. . .seemed to open out all around her, to take the form of a mighty sea, where she floated in fathomless waters" (Portrait 489). It is this fear of the erotic and its encroachment upon the mind that seem to be the most significant links between the James novel and the two Eliot poems.
In Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady," Isabel, or someone like her, is living with the consequences of her rejection of passionate human connection. She has apparently befriended a young gentleman (I assume it's a gentleman?), but she can only hope for a limited connection: "But what have I, but what have I, my friend,/ To give you, what can you receive from me? /Only the friendship and the sympathy/ Of one about to reach her journey's end" (lines 64-7). The gentleman is as much averse as she once was to human connection. His reaction, ". . .how can I make a cowardly amends/ For what she has said to me" (69-70) along with the later callous references to her probable death—"Well! And what if she should die some afternoon"(114)—seem to indicate that this offering of herself is to the gentleman the "fornication" the epigraph portends. The lady becomes the object of the same kind of revulsion that motivated her own rejection of someone like Caspar Goodwood. She finally offers herself and it is too late—her life becomes a "'dying fall,'" a decrescendo, the opposite of triumphant. Like Prufrock, who has "measured out" his "life with coffee spoons"(51), she embraces the mundane, repeating, "I shall sit here, serving tea to friends" (68, 108).
Whereas the lady in "Portrait" no longer has a choice in the matter, Prufrock is still undecided. In the closing stanza, he expresses his fear of the human connection using the same image James uses to describe Isabel's distress—that of drowning: "We have lingered here in the chambers of the sea. . .Till human voices wake us, and we drown" (129-31). Tellingly, it is the human voice and not the sea itself that causes the drowning. As Prufrock explains earlier, the sea is not an unwelcoming place to inhabit: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas"(73-4). Of course, the condition is that the seas must be silent. Of course, Prufrock is ambivalent, and he has not decided what his answer to the "overwhelming question" (10) will be. I think the question has to be Should I connect? or possibly Is there salvation in connecting? If he does not connect, he will end up like Eliot's Elizabeth Archer--willing to offer himself when it is really too late.

The citation for the Mazzella article:
Mazzella, Anthony J. "The New Isabel." The Portrait of a Lady: Norton Critical Edition.2nd ed. Ed. Robert D. Bamberg. New York: Norton, 1995. 597-619. Print.

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