The Architectural Principle in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

24 Pages, Grade: 1,3

Bettina Wolf (Author)


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Architecture as thematic setting
2.1 Gardencourt as a cultural ideal
2.2 Confusing freedom and restriction

3 Architecture as a means of characterisation
3.1 Mme Merle’s shell theory
3.2 The mask of the house

4 Perception of architecture
4.1 “She had not read him right
4.2 “You judge only from the outside

5 Architectural metaphors
5.1 Imaginary houses
5.2 States of mind

6 The architectural principle in The Portrait of a Lady
6.1 Architecture as superordinate image system
6.2 The house of fiction

7 Conclusion


1 Introduction

The title of Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady already stresses the visual aspect of the book. Central narrative functions are constituted by sights and insights. In order to convey his characters’ motivations, James puts their mental processes into terms of perception. In this visualising technique, architecture plays a predominant role both on a literal and a figurative level.[1] Since architecture occurs on different levels of the text and fulfils different functions, it will not be treated as a one-dimensional motif, but rather as a complex image system. Instead of trying to simplify James’s complicated imagery networks, the effort will be made to discuss the different levels on which architecture functions without applying a hierarchy to them. It will be tried to pay as much attention as possible to the narrative function of the architectural images. But the essay will not only give an illustration of the different applications of the architecture complex. It will be asked whether the use of architecture in the novel follows a certain system. Looking at the preface to the novel, one could assume that the significance of architecture is not merely ornamental. Is there such thing as an architectural principle in The Portrait of a Lady ?

2 Architecture as thematic setting

In a very basic sense, architecture functions in the context of setting. As Izzo has pointed out, the number of settings is limited. Although the reader is informed about Isabel’s journeys to exotic countries, the novel unfolds in a limited number of houses and gardens.[2] Unlike in the traditional novel, the function of settings in The Portrait is not to create a realist illusion and to make the narrated world more vivid. Instead, setting takes over functions traditionally ascribed to other narrative categories such as characterization or plot. The following chapter will be concerned with James’s use of architecture in the traditional sense of setting. It will be shown how James uses architectural views to touch central themes of the novel.

2.1 Gardencourt as a cultural ideal

The novel starts on the lawn of Gardencourt, the estate of Isabel Archer’s uncle. An authorial narrator presents a detailed view on the scenery Isabel is about to enter. The opening scene presents an entirely visual image. Since the description is distinctly set apart from the following dialogue, the scene has been often referred to as a tableau.[3] James stresses the visual character of the opening passage by referring to it as a “picture I have attempted to sketch” [III, 2].[4] The house on which the narrator looks is an essential part of this “particularly English” picture. It is presented as a stereotypical English country mansion:

A long gabled front of red brick, with the complexion of which time and the weather had played all sorts of picturesque tricks, only, however, to improve and refine it, presented itself to the lawn, with its patches of ivy, its clustered chimneys, its windows smothered in creepers. [III, 2]

As a setting, Gardencourt also serves as an illustration of the omni-present ‘international theme’ in Henry James. We are told that the house “had a name and a history” [III, 2]. It is deeply rooted in English, i.e. European tradition, which functions as a positive opposite to the American lack of culture felt by James and his characters. As Bowden points out, Gardencourt stands for the “age and beauty and tradition not found in America.”[5] But although it is essentially English, it has been purchased and taken care of by an American. Therefore, Brosch attributes to Gardencourt the meaning of a “Schnittstelle der Kulturen”.[6] The setting conveys the idea of a positive exchange between American and European culture.

The positive impression is intensified by the point of view the authorial narrator permits the reader to share. The house is presented from the back. James stresses that the entrance front is “in quite another quarter” [III, 3]. In a direct comparison with the description of Osmond’s villa it becomes clear that the main function of a façade is to serve as a sign of social status. At Gardencourt, nobody cares for facades. “Privacy here reigned supreme,” states James and shows the reader to the lawn behind the house where tea is served. But although the scene is set in the open air, the lawn is presented like an enclosed space:

[…] the wide carpet of turf that covered the level hill-top seemed but the extension of a luxurious interior. The great still oaks and beeches flung down a shade as dense as velvet curtains; and the place was furnished, like a room, with cushioned seats, with rich-coloured rugs, with the books and papers that lay upon the grass. [III, 3f.]

The relation between exterior and interior here serves to illustrate an integration of the conflict between nature and culture. Nature has been successfully cultivated and has become just another room to live in. The opposition outside-inside is resolved into a harmonious blending of qualities. As Izzo points out, even the name of the place can be read as a hint to this spatial ambiguity, since its components refer to both open and enclosed space.[7] The domesticated character of nature contributes to a great extent to the peaceful atmosphere of the Gardencourt scenery.

Brosch has pointed out that the place is presented in terms of time passing: “the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow” [III, 1].[8] In a very positive way, Gardencourt is presented as a place in which everything has come to rest.[9] It is a refuge for its inhabitants, even if they are only visitors. Madame Merle as a ‘homeless’ expatriate expresses her affection for Gardencourt and declares that she would have liked to live in it: “’I don’t venture to send a message to the people,’ Madame Merle added; ‘but I should like to give my love to the place’” [IV, 380]. Brosch points out that Gardencourt is nothing less than a cultural ideal.[10] A key image in the description of this cultural ideal is the opposition between outside and inside. On the one hand, the inside-outside opposition serves to illustrate the positively connoted cultural location the Touchetts have established at Gardencourt. On the other hand, this opposition is an essential part of the ‘thematic setting’ Isabel Archer is about to enter.

2.2 Confusing freedom and restriction

The description of Gardencourt functions as a symbolic illustration of more than one of the novel’s themes. As Hoffmann pointedly remarks, the tableaux (Gardencourt and Osmond’s villa) appear in prominent positions of the novel and thus function as “thematische Leitstellen”.[11] On a symbolic level, the opening passage introduces one of the novel’s central problems: the confusion of concepts of freedom and restriction. The open air scene on Gardencourt lawn is presented as if it took place in an enclosed space. This contradiction can be found in Isabel’s character as well. Her “desire for unlimited expansion” [IV, 82] is counterbalanced by a tendency to retreat. When she tells Ralph about her intention to marry, he is shocked by the idea to see her “put into a cage”. Isabel dismisses his idea of her personality by answering: “If I like my cage, that needn’t trouble you” [III, 65]. In spite of having been very fond of her liberty, she is now determined to “choose a corner and cultivate that” [III, 65].

Izzo names an excellent example for Isabel’s tendency to confuse the two terms of the freedom-constraint opposition. In chapter 17, Isabel expresses her personal idea of happiness to her friend Henrietta Stackpole: “A swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can’t see – that’s my idea of happiness” [III, 235]. According to Izzo, this vision expresses “utmost movement and activity”, but also has a strong passive aspect since movement and activity are not caused by the individual inside the carriage, but determined from outside.[12] Isabel’s ‘defect’, to speak figuratively, is that she desires the unlimited views of open air and the protection of enclosed space at the same time. At the one hand, she is very fond of her liberty, but there is a tendency to retreat from the outside world.[13]

As an opening passage, the description of Gardencourt serves not only as background scenery for Isabel’s first appearance; it also establishes a kind of ‘thematic setting’. The architectural description is interspersed with motifs which anticipate some of the novel’s central problems. But how do James’s ‘thematic settings’ exactly work? Considering the complexity of the semantic fields created by James’s architectural descriptions, it does not appear sufficient to speak of a ‘symbolic level’ and leave it at that. Of course there is a symbolic level, but the term does not answer the question how this symbolic level is evoked.

The realist novel makes extensive use of descriptions in order to create a vivid illusion of reality. Smuda points out that descriptions in the realist novel work through suggestive details presented by an observer-narrator.[14] One could argue about the classification of The Portrait as a realist novel, but certainly James’s descriptions also work through suggestive details which are closely related to themes developed later in the novel. By presenting Gardencourt lawn as a furnished room, the freedom-restriction theme is evoked on a miniature scale. In this sense, Izzo speaks of the “connotative and connotating” nature of settings in The Portrait.[15]

3 Architecture as a means of characterisation

As we have just seen, architecture in The Portrait is used to create ‘thematic settings’. But it also tells something about its inhabitants. Instead of giving explicit characterisations of his figures, James often chooses to present the reader with a symbolic description of architecture, treating the house as an expression of its inhabitant. Architectural descriptions tend to take over functions of characterisation. Hopkins observes that James’s technique consists of “fusing much of what is normally called setting with action and characterization.”[16] In the following chapter, I will show how this fusion is realised in The Portrait of a Lady.


[1] Cf. Peter Garrett, Scene and Symbol from George Eliot to James Joyce: Studies in Changing Fictional Mode (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press 1969) 83.

[2] Cf. Donatella Izzo, “The Portrait of A Lady and Modern Narrative”, New Essays on The Portrait of a Lady, Ed. Joel Porte (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) 33-48, 40.

[3] Cf. Renate Brosch, Krisen des Sehens. Henry James und die Veränderung der Wahrnehmung im 19. Jahrhundert (Tübingen: Stauffenburg, 2000) 100; Gerhard Hoffmann, Raum, Situation und erzählte Wirklichkeit (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1978) 481.

[4] In the following, it will be quoted from the New York Edition, Vol. III and IV: Henry James, The Novels and Tales, 27 Vol, 1908 (Irvine: Reprint Services Corporation Scribner, 1992).

[5] Edwin T. Bowden, The Themes of Henry James. A System of Observation Through the Visual Arts (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1969) 54.

[6] Brosch 103.

[7] Cf. Izzo 44.

[8] Cf. Brosch 102.

[9] In this point, I disagree with Brosch who associates the images of fading light and weary brickwork with the passing of the Touchett family. Cf. Brosch 104.

[10] “Gardencourt ist ein Kulturideal, ein Ort der Sehnsucht der sozial und national Heimatlosen [...].“ Brosch 113.

[11] Hoffmann 492.

[12] Izzo 38.

[13] Cf. Brosch 115.

[14] „Bei einem optisch motivierten Standpunkt tritt der Erzähler als Beobachter auf und qualifiziert die in seinem Zeigfeld liegende Gegenständlichkeit in visueller Hinsicht. Er verleiht dem Zeigfeld-Schema gleichsam Akzente, indem er durch Beschreibung suggestive Details für die Konstitution der imaginären Gegenständlichkeit herstellt.“ Manfred Smuda, Der Gegenstand der bildenden Kunst und Literatur: Typologische Untersuchungen zur Theorie des ästhetischen Gegenstands (München: Fink, 1979) 69.

[15] Izzo 44.

[16] Viola Hopkins, “Visual Art Devices and Parallels in the Fiction of Henry James”, Henry James: Modern Judgements. Ed. Tory Tanner (Nashville Aurora 1970) 89-115, 99f.

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The Architectural Principle in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady
College  (Institut für Anglistik/ Amerikanistik)
Hauptseminar: Henry James - The International Theme
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Architectural, Principle, Henry, James, Portrait, Lady, Hauptseminar, Henry, James, International, Theme
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Bettina Wolf (Author), 2006, The Architectural Principle in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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