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Henry James


The psychological novel is a work of fiction in which the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of the characters are of equal or greater interest than is the external action of the narrative. In the psychological novel, plot is subordinate to and dependent upon the probing delineation of character. Events may not be presented in chronological order but rather as they occur in the character’s thought associations, memories, fantasies, reveries, contemplations, and dreams.
This type of novel reproduces human’s psychology, also with the unconscious part of the mind, which makes the story much more complex, because it follows its own rules.

Henry James’s life

Henry James, (born 1843, New York- died 1916, London), was an American novelist and, as a naturalized English citizen from 1915, a great figure in the transatlantic culture. The young Henry was a shy, book-addicted boy who assumed the role of quiet observer beside his active elder brother. When he was 19 years of age, he entered at the Harvard Law School, but he devoted his time reading, for example Honoré de Balzac, and writing short travel stories. When he became famous, he went to Paris, where he met Gustave Flaubert, Émile Zola and Guy de Maupassant. Then he moved to London, where he’ll live until his death in 1916. The masterpiece of his first phase as novelist is generally considered to be The Portrait of a Lady (1881).

A forerunner of the modern psychological novel

In his earlier works, James’s realism concentrated more on detailed descriptions of people and their place in society. His later fiction instead represents what has been called “psychological realism”, an exploration of feelings, dilemmas of existence and the study of the human soul in all its most precise aspects. It was a mixture of the Victorian novel’s realism and of the interest in the states of mind of human’s relationships. In many ways James might therefore be considered the forerunner of the modern psychological novel, officially born 20 years later after Freud’s “Interpretation of the dreams” (1899). He is modern in the way in which he deals with the ambiguity behind appearances. In fact the leitmotif of James’s novels is the tragic vision of evil, selfishness and moral corruption.

The ‘limited point of view’

James broke with the Victorian tradition of fictional realism, in which an external omniscient narrator tells about events and describes characters, which were in his control. He developed the “limited point of view”: James turned rather to the internal, and therefore limited, experience of his narrator. This required the active participation of the reader in interpreting the events, exactly the contrary of the passive reader of the Victorian novel, who knows everything. This signed the fragmentation in the 20th century’s novel, where there isn’t a single truth, because every reader has his own interpretation. In fact, we can recognize the crisis of the concept of human mind of this period also in Italy with Pirandello’s “Uno, nessuno e centomila”, which stated that everyone wears a thousand different masks in the thousand of different occasions of life, leading to the loss of identity.

American vs. European

Henry James frequently concentrated himself on the “international” theme: the gap between the American and the European character in his works. James describes Americans as naïve, energetic, practical, sincere and spontaneous people. On the other hand Europeans are described as sophisticated, lethargic, formal and insincere; they value the society above the individual.

The portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady is the story of an energetic young American woman, Isabel Archer, who, in "confronting her destiny", finds it overwhelming. She would like to experience life before settling down with a husband; in fact she refuses the men she meets when she moves to England. But this until she inherits a large amount of money and can satisfy all her wishes. She travels to Italy and France with Madame Merle, a sophisticated American woman who finally makes Isabel marry Gilbert Osmond, an American widower. But it’s a failure: Isabel finds out that the two had a love affair and even a child! Disillusioned she returns to England, but after a while she comes back to live with her husband.
Like many of James's novels, it is set in Europe, mostly England, France and Italy. Generally regarded as the masterpiece of James's early period, this novel reflects James's continuing interest in the differences between the New World and the Old, often to the detriment of the former. It also treats in a profound way the themes of personal freedom, responsibility, and betrayal.

A young person of many theories (The Portrait of a Lady) This extract introduces Isabel as a young woman with a very attractive personality, who therefore struggles between social convention and independence.
- It is narrated in the 3rd person by an unidentified external voice, which has an omniscient point of view. The protagonist is presented through her thoughts, beliefs and the way she presented to other people, there’s no physical description. The narrator emphasises her active imagination and fine mind, which makes her resemble Madame Bovary by Flaubert.
- Her aunt spread the rumour that the girl was writing a book, but it wasn’t true, Isabel didn’t even desire it. She had a very high perception of herself, she felt superior and quick-minded. In fact her theory about life was that everyone should be best friend of one self to have the best possible company.
- She regarded the world in a very bright way as a place of many irresistible possibilities and actions, so to be false, cruel and mean with another person was the worst thing that might happen to her. Isabel wanted to be in harmony with everybody and everything, it’s her ideal to appear so, even though she is often disillusioned by the reality.
- She is a typical “American” character, because she is intelligent, spontaneous, sincere, she aspires to action like Emma, but is quit naïve and romantic, without any artistic inspiration or life experience.
- The passage is an example of realistic psychological novel because it shows the complexity of human feelings, hopes and relationships with Isabel as model of that.
- There is an example of a foreshadowing = hint in the early part of a novel about an important thing that is going to happen later in the story: some day she will find herself in a difficult position exaggerating with her wish to appear what she was and to be what she appeared.
- James himself says at the end of the passage that all the contradictions that characterized Isabel would be victims of scientific criticism if the reader won’t appreciate her because of her similarity to him, which inspires a sort of expectance for the story.
- Isabel pretends to be a woman who had her experiences, but she is more like a young innocent woman waiting for her life experiences.
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