What is a great book? What is a great conversation? What counts as a great class? a great education? a great idea? a great life? For that matter, what is a conversation? an education? a life? As a great books college, Shimer College is about the questions -- questions which we carry with us across our lives as we work, play, think, read, live. We are about acting responsibily in our world with joy and seriousness. So, Evocations is about higher education -- but like higher education about much more. Please join our conversation today. Scoll down and read more!
Shimer is in Illinois. So, why write about Illinois and New York? Is it because we have alumnae and alumni in both places? (Yes, we do. But no, this is not the reason.) Is it because as the "third coast" Chicago-ans (as Shimer is now) always defer to the real coast, aka the east coast, which includes New York? Or the "real" city, aka New York City? (No. We are proud Chicago-ans and proud mid-country advocates.) Is it simply because our current president came from New York to Illinois and so has a fondness for the former? (While true, this is, again, not the reason.) Nor is the reason for connecting the two the oddity that today's mayor of Mount Carroll, Illinois (where Shimer once was located) spent early years in Canandaigua, NY.
Enough already. Why, then, look at both states? The main reason today is because of the intwined histories of New York and Illinois, of Shimer and upstate New York, carried by Frances Wood and Cinderella Gregory, whether intentionally or not, to Mount Carroll.
Our beginnings connect mid-19th century New York to mid-19th century Illinois when both were, in some sense, frontiers. Of course, this is a familiar story, of young people who journeyed from upstate New York to find lives elsewhere, in this case two young women who found themselves in Mount Carroll. As they made their journey, though, they were not alone -- others made like journeys -- and they brought aspects of their homes to Mount Carroll. I have remarked on the similarity of the landscapes of the Finger Lakes region to the area around Mount Carroll -- both the product of glacial retreat -- and of the architecture, as home building styles moved across the country with those who moved from coast to the midwest. Indeed, I have noted that around Mount Carroll (and across Illinois) we see repeated some of the same names for towns as appear scattered across upstate NY.
The 1840s and 1850s saw substantial change in the area of upstate New York from which our founders came -- a place sometimes called the "burned over district." When you think upstate NY, think the abolition movement, the rise of women's rights (including the Married Womans Property Act), new religions (e.g., the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints), prophecies of the end times, and immigration-related transformations. When we think Illinois, we think about (or at least I do) debates between Lincoln and others, the rise of Chicago (later than mid-century, of course) as a major transportation hub, the ways slavery and then the civil war shaped lives.
When we think of Shimer -- we ought to think of Illinois and New York. And much much more.
How did we at Shimer miss the 'greatest Chicago book tournament' sponsored by the Reader? Really? We missed this? I did at least!
The tournament has gone on for months, choosing amongst various books associated with Chicago (from The Jungle and Twenty Years at Hull House to Divergent and The Time Traveler's Wife). There were brackets and everything -- leading to choices between various pairs. After months, in March 2015, the choice was between Isabel Wilkerson's Warmth of Other Suns and Studs Terkel's Working. The reading of the books would have been a perfect Shimer course on Chicago -- really, Native Son? The House on Mango Street? Mike Royko meets Saul Bellow?
In any case, it was all reported here in early March -- and then, [SPOILER ALERT] Isabel Wilkerson's triumph appeared here. And yes, hers is a terrific book - documenting the great migration in moving ways that are particularly relevant for Shimer given our location in Bronzeville.
The best part of all this, though, is not only who "won" the tournament but all the books that we encountered -- if we had only known -- because of the Reader's contest. Now, as summer is approaching -- the very opposite of G.R.R. Martin's "winter is coming" -- we can all turn to our summer reading list -- including all these Chicago favorites.
Have you read them all? Is there a Shimer digital initiative here? Or course? Or is this just plain reading for fun?
Ann Dolinko has been a member of the Shimer faculty since 1996. Her degrees are in philosophy and her teaching includes many of our core courses in the social sciences and humanities. She also offers a host of electives at Shimer, including those that contribute to addressing the question of what the human is through the lens of feminism Below, she offers some reflections on Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Bronte and published in 1847.
Jane Eyre is a profoundly literary novel. Charlotte Brontë (brief biography available here) created a compelling story that never fails to reach out to the reader with sublime romance and achingly poetic prose. Although often classified as a bildungsroman, the narrative transcends that genre. In more simplistic terms it is, yes, a coming of age story, being that of our protagonist Jane traversing the psychological and moral growth from youth to adulthood, and the trials she endures that result in the formation of her adult self, but the narrative elements, the journeys, the characters, and above all the prose, create a synergy, making this a compelling novel.
Synopsis: Brontë begins with the orphaned ten year old Jane living, unwanted, bullied, and ridiculed, at her deceased uncle’s wife’s house, who shortly decides to be rid of Jane by sending her away to Lowood Academy, a school for girls. There she endures harsh conditions for 8 years, eventually becoming a teacher. Jane leaves Lowood to work as a governess to the ward of Mr. Rochester, the imposing owner of the estate of Thornfield Hall. Rochester and Jane fall in love but at the wedding it is revealed that Rochester is married to an insane wife he cares for in a remote attic of the estate, and Jane runs away in horror and humiliation with nothing but the clothes on her back. Days later, starving and exposed to the elements of the unforgiving Yorkshire moors, she happens upon an isolated home occupied by three siblings, a brother and two sisters not far from Jane’s age, who take her in. The brother, St. John Rivers, eventually asks her to accompany him on his missionary plans as his wife. Jane rejects his offer and hears the disembodied voice of Rochester calling out to her. She cannot resist and returns to Thornfield to find it in ruins, having been set on fire by his mad wife. The housekeeper is also there and sees Jane, and directs her to Rochester’s new lodging, a cottage on the vast estate. Rochester has been partially blinded by the fire while trying unsuccessfully to save his wife and does not recognize Jane, mistaking her for his housekeeper. Jane does not speak to him but touches his face. He takes hold of her hands and feels her face and realizes who it is and they marry and have children.
This brief outline, of course, misses much detail and subtlety that create a compelling narrative. One of Jane Eyre’s outstanding features is the rich prose and powerful lexicon used throughout, most memorably in the conversations between Jane and Rochester. From their first meeting Brontë infuses their dialogue with a spark that grows and heats with each encounter. Brontë skillfully portrays the ineffability of two people falling in love. The chemistry is palpable. It is in these scenes that reader, as well as Rochester, see the indomitable spirit and intelligence of Jane Eyre, both of which draw Rochester toward Jane. With Jane’s strength of character and intelligence, Brontë brings into the narrative issues of societal roles, hierarchies, and male-female inequality. In one scene, for instance, Jane’s thoughts run on to the restrictions placed on women in society and the pain this causes because women share with men an equality of desire, emotion, and intellect, but convention prevents them from realizing these attributes in society (chapter twelve). Brontë is also adept at the use of coincidence in furthering the narrative without pushing it beyond reasonableness. Jane believes herself to be alone in the world, without any true relations, but she discovers that St. John Rivers and his two sisters turn out to be her cousins, and she also discovers the existence of an uncle who has been unsuccessfully attempting to contact her through her deceased father’s brother’s wife, the wicked aunt of the book’s beginnings, and St. John Rivers’ family are also related to this uncle. Brontë wrote Jane Eyre in close proximity to Charles Dickens’ earlier writings. Jane Eyre was published nine years after Oliver Twist (1838), and so I think it would be interesting to know how well Brontë was acquainted with Dickens and to explore whether his abundant use of coincidence as a plot device had any influence on her writing.
In reading Jane Eyre, I find it hard not to compare it to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). Although the two books are so vastly different in style, their themes of romance, societal hierarchies, and strong female protagonists give the two books some overlapping conceits. In particular Jane Eyre brings to mind two romantic climaxes in Austen’s book: The scene in which Darcy first declares his love for Elizabeth toward the middle of the book, and then toward the book’s end when Darcy again attempts to apprize Elizabeth of his deep feelings. I find both scenes dissatisfying in that Darcy’s most climactic part of the interlocution is narrated by Austen, leaving it to the reader to fill in what he might be saying. This diminishes the reader’s heightened emotional engagement at these critical junctures. Brontë, however, not only supplies us abundant dialogue with both sides of the conversations, she does so masterfully and in a deeply satisfying fashion.
It is hard to speak of Jane Eyre without thinking of the many cinematic efforts to bring the story to the screen. I have seen most of these, and almost all fail for the same reason, which is the film maker’s disinterest in using Brontë’s rich prose in the many dialogues that occur. Anyone writing a screenplay of Jane Eyre has ready-made, masterful dialogues already written, but almost all choose to substitute inferior conversations that sometimes make me cringe, knowing what the characters could have been saying. One important exception is the 1983 4-hour British adaptation, bringing both Rochester and Jane and most of the other characters and subplots to life including the most of Brontë’s dialogues. The 1996 112 minute Hollywood adaptation is also fairly well done in terms of faithfulness to dialogue and story elements. I find all the rest lacking in a variety of ways, most notably the loss of dialogue. The 2011 120 minute Hollywood adaptation may be the worst—it somewhat faithfully adheres to the plotlines but does something unimaginable with Jane and Rochester’s interlocutions: it keeps Brontë’s lines written for Rochester intact, but removes most of Jane’s responses, making her almost mute. Brontë wrote a female protagonist with a strength and independence and boldness of mind, remarkable for its day, which is stripped away from her in this degrading movie. The idea of Rochester falling in love with a woman of lower status relies heavily on what Rochester sees as the intelligence and independence of spirit Jane displays in her repartee with him. It was so sad to watch a film in which Jane’s voice is taken away because, but for that one misstep that is so unfortunately in step with our current misogynist culture, the film would have been an excellent rendition of the book.
Bev Thurber has been a professor at Shimer since 2009 and has previously written on Evocations here on the topic of Euclidean ice skating. As she puts it here, her main non-academic interests are ice skating (see previous comment) and cats.
Jordanes was a Roman, probably with Gothic ancestry, who wrote his history of the Goths in Latin in about 551. He begins by explaining his process: He read Cassiodorus's twelve-volume work on the Goths in a period of three days (granted, it was his second time through the books --- perhaps he was able to spend more time with them for his first reading) and didn't remember the words (51). What he wrote is a summary of what he recalls of the sense of Cassiodorus's work, combined some material from other Greek and Roman authors and "many things of [his] own authorship" (51). Mierow writes, in the very first sentence of his introduction, that the work "is not a model of literary evidence or originality" (1). Since both the author and translator of the book begin with comments on how bad it is, why should anyone read it?
This book's chief virtue is that it has survived when other early works on the Goths haven't. Jordanes describes how the Goths "burst forth like a swarm of bees" as they left their homeland, Gothiscandza, for Europe (53). They encountered a variety of other peoples in their travels, including steppe peoples, Slavs, and other Germanic tribes. He describes the arrival of the Huns in Europe and Attila became "almost the sole earthly ruler of all the tribes of Scythia" (101). Jordanes seems to have been a fan of Attila, because he spends some time describing Attila's character, calling him "a man born into the world to shake the nations" (102). He also describes Attila's death and funeral in vivid detail --- apparently Attila died on his wedding night after drinking so much that he passed out and choked on blood from a nosebleed that ran down his throat (123).
Shimer's reading list includes a number of texts by Roman authors, but Jordanes is not one of them. He'd fit best into Integrative Studies 5, which includes Roman history, but generally focuses more on the Roman empire itself than on the peoples outside of it. Jordanes provides an important reminder that the people who lived outside the Empire, and eventually sacked it, were also important in the formation of Europe. According to Jordanes, the Roman counsellor Dicineus taught the Goths philosophy, including ethics, physics, logic, and astronomy (70). Wulfila, a Goth himself, translated the Bible into Gothic, and some Gothic commentary on the Bible survives. The Goths didn't leave Great Books behind like the Greeks and Romans did, but that doesn't make them less interesting. Jordanes's text is one of the major sources of information on them that is available today.
So, thanks to Bev, we meet someone new. . . If you want to explore the text, try clicking here.
Periodically, I have asked if someone is a Shimerian -- Gertrude Stein? Charles Bradshaw? DuBois? In each instance, I have argued, whether more or less seriously, for their inclusion as a Shimerian. George R. R. Martin. Neil Gaiman (who more recently has tweeted regarding Shimer, which is always a new reason to see someone as Shimerian) have also been similarly discussed right here on this very blog. And yes, I have at least implied that they all qualify.
And yet, I have not yet asked you whether you are a Shimerian. Are you?
To be best able to address this question, perhaps the thing is to look for commonalities among those that have been labeled "Shimerian" on this blog? Or, perhaps the best idea is to attempt to list the characteristics of a "shimerian" in some sort of deductive or indicative way? Or, perhaps, the solution (implied in the earlier blog posts) is to adopt an ostensive rather than substantive or functional definition of a Shimerian? (Is the term always capitalized? Never? In some circumstances?)
To puzzle this out, I should note that the aphorism "once a Shimerian, always a Shimerian" may be helpful, though there may be border defining instances where someone (or something?) no longer qualifies as "shimerian" on the grounds of some feature of their character, their behavior, or, perhaps, their existence? (If someone dies, are they no longer a Shimerian in the sense in which they are no longer quite human?)
But none of this, to use a frequently adopted rhetorical flourish of this blog, is quite what this is about. Another question is perhaps at issue: how might one become a Shimerian if one is not or not yet a Shimerian? Beyond adopting the characteristics implied in earlier blog posts about potential Shimerians, what can be done?
There are several possible routes to Shimerian status (insofar as that can be achieved by instrumental means), two of which merit comment here: (a) admission to Shimer and (b) joining us in a Shimerian adventure. Both are possible, of course. For the first, click here to go to our admissions website, and then follow your dream. For the second, you may wish to join us in an on line capacity (after all, you have revealed your love of the on line world by reading this far). To do so, check this portion of our site out, where you can learn about various (more or less free) on line discussion groups that could be rewarding - and would (I think) qualify you to go through the remainder of your life as a "Shimerian."
David Shiner has been a professor at Shimer College for many years, writing on baseball and much more. (For David's previous contribution to Evocations, click here.) He plays chess and vintage baseball; his most recent research interest is classical philosophy. Here David offers "Thoughts on Plato’s Apology."
As one of Plato’s best-known works, the Apology needs little introduction, especially to devotees of philosophy. However, perhaps partly because of its conventional characterization as a philosophical text, the religious content of the dialogue is often understated or ignored. This is a mistake, for reasons I shall briefly enumerate here.
Early in the Apology, Socrates attempts to account for his reputation – a reputation that has resulted in his being prosecuted on the grounds of, among other charges, impiety. He tells the Athenian jury, “I have gained this reputation, gentlemen, from nothing more or less than a kind of wisdom. What kind of wisdom do I mean? Human wisdom, I suppose. It seems that I really am wise in this limited sense.” Concerning “wisdom that is more than human,” Socrates goes on to say, “I certainly have no knowledge about such wisdom….” (20D). How, then, does he know that he has any wisdom at all? Because “the god at Delphi,” Apollo, had famously told Socrates’ friend Chaerephon many years earlier that no one was wiser than Socrates (20D-E).
Socrates’ reaction to the declaration of the oracle was to try to better understand its meaning by asking questions of people who claimed to be knowledgeable about various matters. He viewed this as a religious quest, saying, “I pursued my investigation at the god’s command” (22A). On this basis, Socrates questioned many of his fellow Athenians and found their responses to lack the knowledge they claimed to have about their chosen subject. [W]hen I think that any person is not wise,” he tells his listeners and Plato’s readers, “I try to help the cause of God by proving that he is not” (23C). Socrates’ project is self-consciously religious throughout.
As a result of his labors, Socrates professes to have discovered the meaning of the oracle, which is that “real wisdom is the property of God, and…human wisdom has little or no value” (23A). In other words, “real wisdom” is religious in nature, and Socrates does not believe that he himself possesses it. However, in claiming ignorance of any “wisdom that is more than human,” Socrates does not intend to imply that he is irreligious. In fact, as the quoted passages and many others within the dialogue make clear, it is Socrates’ obedience to the god Apollo that leads him to undertake his quest. As he says, “God appointed me…to the duty of living the philosophic life, examining myself and others” (28E). It is thus religious faith that serves as the foundation for Socrates’ beliefs and actions as recounted in the Apology. Any serious attempt to understand the dialogue, philosophical or otherwise, must come to grips with that fact.
(Citations are from Plato, The Last Days of Socrates, trans. Treddenick [Penguin Classics, ISBN 0-14-044037-2) (If you want to look at a version of Plato's Apology from the Internet Classics Archive, try clicking here.)
Some time ago, I attended a talk and heard someone speak of visits from Gertrude Stein to Chicago in the mid-1930s. The speaker then sent me a terrific article entitled ""An invincible force meets an immovable object": Gertrude Stein comes to Chicago." The article, written by Liesl Olson, appeared in Modernism/Modernity, volume 17, Number 2, Spril 2010, pp. 331-361. And, the topic seems apt for this, the start of Women's History Month.
And yes, it is this article that leads me to ask, rhetorically at least, whether and how Stein might be Shimerian.
As Olson argues, Stein was initially incredibly put off by the notion of "great books," especially as pushed by Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins. The U of C, as we call it today, snubbed her in some ways during some of her visit(s) to Chicago. And then, she was entranced -- she accepted the invitation to sit in on a seminar and that was it. Or, that was kind of it -- she actually enjoyed the debate and discussion. And, though no one would argue she accepted the full paraphernalia of the "great books" tradition, she certainly was more inclined that way than prior to her visit amongst the students. (Certainly, it is the delight of the classroom discussion that persuades people to believe -- or join -- what Shimer does. Stein as pre-cursor to today's Shimer?)
As Olson notes, one "infamous" evening (November 27, 1934) at a party, Stein "got into a very heated discussion with [Mortimer] Adler and Robert Hutchins.. . According to Adler, Stein was 'infuriated' by the idea that the Great Books were read in translation. . . " (p. 347. The debate seemed to have to do with the value of language per se and the notion that the ideas themselves were what matters and that they were translatable. In any case, though, this lead to the famous invitation to a class. Here, though, is some of what Olson writes about Stein's visit to a class: "By her own account Gertrude Stein had an entertaining time teaching Great Books students. In a letter she wrote afterwards to Van Vechten, she admits to "immensely" enjoying the course because "they teach by talking." She writes to him: "they are interesting students and they say good things to you and they catch you up and it goes hammer and tongs pretty well and I liked it I like it a lot, it lasted almost two hours and I guess a good time was enjoyed by all." . . . (p. 348)
Her objections, as Olson makes evident, had nothing to do with the classroom. Stein's disagreements were, of course, more about the content, the personalities of Adler and Hutchins, and the very idea of a translated canon.
For those who do not know Stein spoke at Marshall Fields -- or much else about the literati of Chicago of that era, the piece is worth reading. And for those of us who are Shimerians -- including the folks who have written theses on Stein -- it would be great to hear what you think. A Shimerian? A Closet Shimerian? Or not?
Adam Kotsko has been at Shimer College as a professor since 2011. He has published a variety of works, including, this year, a book on creepiness from Zero Books. (Click here for information.) For more on Adam's teaching and much more, click here. Today, he is looking at the following book:
Malcolm Bull, The Mirror of the Gods: Classical Mythology in Renaissance Art (New York: Penguin, 2005). ISBN: 978-0-14-026608-5
And here is what Adam has to say:
One of the courses I teach at Shimer is Humanities 1: Art and Music, which explores the fine arts using Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a framework and guide. The myths Ovid relates have proven hugely influential on Western art and music, and at no period was that more true than in the Renaissance, which witnessed a blossoming of Greek and Roman mythological themes as the classics of the ancient world were being rediscovered.
Hence I turned to Malcolm Bull’s The Mirror of the Gods: Classical Mythology in Renaissance Art seeking background for my course. While I did get that—in ample measure—from this amazingly thorough work of scholarship, I also gained the opportunity to wrestle with an argument that made me challenge many of my presuppositions about the centrality of mythological imagery in Renaissance art.
As Bull shows, mythological themes were in fact quite marginal for much of the period. There are many reasons for this. The first is simply that it took a long time for detailed knowledge of pagan mythology to penetrate beyond an elite circle of classical scholars. Few working artists would have been comfortable reading in Latin, and most available “translations” of classical authors like Ovid were more like paraphrases and commentaries than true translations. In fact, one of the most surprising aspects of Bull’s arguments is that many of Ovid’s stories enter into art directly as images—namely, as illustrations in the various versions of Ovid’s texts that were floating around. (This reliance on illustrations meant that in some cases, myths were attributed to Ovid that don’t actually appear in his text, simply because the illustrator of a particular edition felt like including other myths.)
In addition to the problem of access, there was a problem of audience. Relatively few patrons were interested in mythological themes, at least at first. There was something vaguely scandalous about producing images of pagan gods in a Christian culture, particularly when the stories tended to center on the gods’ immoral behavior. On a more nitty-gritty level, though, there were not many settings where mythological imagery seemed like a good “fit.” It obviously wouldn’t work in churches, which were still the primary setting for much visual art, but even in a patron’s home, there were only a few types of rooms or pieces of furniture where mythological themes felt appropriate.
The bulk of Bull’s argument is taken up with showing how certain mythological figures found their way into the mainstream despite these obstacles, and the stories are often surprising and fascinating. What struck me most, however, was the conclusion, where Bull points out how strange it is that the early modern European world would embrace and enshrine a cultural tradition that no one seriously believed in anymore. The revival of Greek mythological traditions was not, after all, a revival of the Greek religious practices that gave the stories such urgency for the Greeks themselves. Whatever early modern mythology was, then, it wasn’t “Greek mythology” as the Greeks would have experienced it. Instead, Bull argues, it was something distinctively modern—an illusion that is openly embraced as such.
For a totally unrelated review of Bull's book, click here.
As some of you know, Shimer has a Social Reading Program that allows us to read together -- even when we are apart. This month, we are reading some material from African American authors, including DuBois, recently discovered to be a Shimerian (kidding, but see here). We hope you will consider joining us.
Here is a basic description of what we call Shimertopia, using Social Book.
SocialBook is a new publishing platform based on the idea that "a book is a place" where readers can congregate. SocialBook makes it very easy to annotate a text and to follow a conversation in the margins. Using SocialBook, Open Utopia allows for readers around the world to annotate the text in the margins and comment on the annotations of other readers, creating a conversation that is both dynamic and preserved for future participants. SocialBook also makes it possible for us to create a specific reading group composed of Shimer faculty, staff, students, and alumni: Shimertopia. Regardless of where you may find yourself , you can still share in a text-centered conversation with other Shimerians.
If you would like to participate in this experience, please first sign up for SocialBook here. SocialBook is entirely free, and in addition to Open Utopia, you will find dozens of other texts that you may read “socially”. Please note that SocialBook works only with Safari or Chrome browsers. It will not function properly with Internet Explorer, Firefox or other browsers. If you do not already have a compatible browser, you can download Safari for Windows here or Google Chrome here. If you use a Mac or I-Pad, Safari should already be installed on your device.
After you have signed up for SocialBook, please email SocialReading@shimer.edu, and ask to be added to the Shimertopia Group.
When you click on the My Group tab, you will be able to follow the comments of other Shimerians in the margin. You may add comments of your own by highlighting a passage in the text and typing your comment which will then appear to all of us in the margin. You may also click “reply” on others’ comments and continue the conversation they have started. Once someone has replied to a comment, that comment cannot be deleted. It becomes part of a permanently preserved conversation about the text.
We know that reading can be a solitary pleasure, and we also know that discussing texts with others is at the heart of Shimer. We hope you will consider joining us -- and spreading the word!
This month, for Black History month, the readings are Chapter 6 ("Of the Training of Black Men) of W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk. I have also added a collection of speeches from African Americans as collected by Alice Moore-Dunbar Nelson. For those of you who enjoy reading plays, I added The Mule-Bone by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.
Daniela Barberis has been a professor of history of science and social sciences at Shimer College since 2011. For some insight into what Daniela teaches and her published work, click here. Below, Daniela reflects on Henry James' Portrait of a Lady -- as well as Jane Campion's film of that same book.
Henry James. Portrait of a Lady. Penguin Popular Classics. Penguin Group, 1997 .
In this subtle portrayal of a principled heroine, Henry James shows us how constrained the lives and the mental universe of even upper-class moneyed young women were in the late 19th century. Isabel Archer has had an unconventional education and is unusually unsupervised and free to make her own choices. In a further plot twist, she goes from moderately well off to substantially wealthy thanks to a kind relative impressed with her independence of mind—an independence demonstrated by her refusal of a bon parti in the form of an English Lord. She seems to have every advantage. And yet… modern readers may be struck by what appears to be an astounding lack of imagination. Faced with an apparently free choice of occupation, she can think of only two things to do: travel the world, or marry. She receives several proposals even before she has the advantage of a fortune. One could argue that one of the reasons she is preoccupied with marriage is that men keep proposing to her (some of them very insistently), but it remains that she does not have an alternate plan of her own.
My reading of the book was colored by having seen Jane Campion’s movie version of this classic. A very beautiful film, with wonderful photography by Stuart Dryburgh, it does not accurately represent James’s book. The man Isabel does marry, Gilbert Osmond, is so intensely dislikable in the movie that one is hard pressed to understand her actions. He is simply an evil manipulator out for her money. In James’s book, Osmond is almost worse than evil. He is a fastidiously pretentious, intensely self-centered and entitled man, a “sterile aesthete” as one of the characters puts it. Yes, he marries Isabel for her money, but he is smitten by her, because in her he sees the perfect material from which he can mold an appropriate wife, re-creating her to his liking—much as he does with his beautiful house and with his daughter, Pansy. Isabel’s wealth is simply part (though a necessary part) of this material. What is more, he believes he has the right to do so. He believes his superior aesthetic sensibility gives him the right to exercise his control as a husband (or father) to make women into his creations. In Campion’s movie, Osmond is coldly calculating and Isabel seems to be swayed by his overt sexual advances, something her other, more proper suitors, had refrained from. In James’s book, the infatuation is due to her perception of him as a uniquely artistic, sensitive and proud man—a superior man—who had not been able to bring his superiority to fruition because of his lack of funds. She believes she will give him means to achieve his artistic wishes. She lacks a vision of something worthy that she herself might do with her suddenly acquired wealth, and so looks to Osmond to achieve for her this sense of worth. But Osmond has no capacity to do anything for the world; all he aspires to is to configure and control of his world, his wife included. James delivers a wonderful vivisection of his characters’ motivations and feelings and, in a muted way, a plea for the emancipation of women—or at least a heartbreaking description of the destruction brought about by the lack of female autonomy. Isabel had the makings of greatness; but due to events partially put into motion by her fortune, it all ends in tragedy and waste. Of course, as with all Americans in James’s books, she is very naïve in contrast to the wily Europeans that bring about her downfall. From our vantage point, simply observing how Osmond had brought up his child should have been enough to scare any woman of sense from marrying him. But what is most revealing about the mores of the period is that Isabel considers the way Osmond brings up his daughter to be quite proper, in the same way that she shares his notion of what a wife should be—even as she is incapable of fulfilling that role because he does not stand up to her vision of him. Isabel tries to achieve greatness through Osmond; he is not up to the task, but one has to wonder if she would have been happy, even if he had been.
To start reading Portrait of a Lady, click here. For a 2012 New Yorker piece on related matters, try here.