Where’s the Beef?

Among the important questions a writer of fiction must ask when devising a new story, perhaps the most important is, what’s at stake? (And yes, the pun is intentional.) The reader who continues to turn the pages, one after another, must in some way be concerned with the outcome of events. What is to be gained or lost, in the lead character’s life? What are the stakes?

If the reader is not convinced that what’s at stake is important, then the question of whether to continue to read or, alternatively, to set the book down and perhaps never come back to it becomes, at best, a matter of whim.

The convolutions of that sentence might suggest to the perceptive among you that I’ve been reading Henry James; and in that you would be correct. I’ve now waded through 16 chapters of The Portrait of a Lady. At this point in the story, young Isabel has rather decisively turned down two proposals of marriage. She quite likes both of her suitors, and she hasn’t entirely slammed the door on either of them. Though her freedom is at this point largely theoretical, she values it too highly to commit to a marriage.

One might continue to read wondering whether in the end she’ll change her mind and marry one of them, and if so, which one. The difficulty is, it doesn’t much matter. It’s not that she’s making a mistake; James gives us no hint of that. She wants to see the world and experience life, that’s all. Her aunt is going to take her on a tour of Europe. If her heart were smitten by either of her suitors, she could easily plan to spend a few months in Europe and then come back and get married. But that’s not the plan. She doesn’t have a plan. She wants to be independent, but she has no inkling what to do with her independence. And because she doesn’t have a plan, nor is likely to face any grave danger through lack of planning, it’s hard for the reader to care what happens to her.

Something may happen, but if it does, it will be a matter of happenstance. It will not have happened because of any guiding passion of Isabel’s.

Henry James was a very successful novelist. I’m sure readers at the end of the 19th century liked this sort of story a great deal. The question of whom a well-bred young woman would marry was probably a lot more engaging to them than it is for us. In some sense, that may have been the only question that really mattered, where a well-bred young woman was concerned; and there were reasons both economic and social why that should have been the case. But today it’s weak tea indeed.

The novel suffers as well from a profound upper-class bias. Isabel explicitly describes herself as poor, so one might expect that an offer of marriage from an extremely wealthy English lord and an American manufacturing magnate would inspire her to some practical thought as to her future. But no. At the end of Chapter 16 she’s staying in a good hotel in London, in a two-room suite, and she certainly hasn’t paid for this herself. Her uncle is a rich banker and land-owner, and it’s his money that’s supporting her lifestyle. The servants, meanwhile, are nameless and faceless.

Money not being a consideration, James has nothing to capture his attention or ours but the elaborate and heartfelt but nonetheless rather artificial and etiolated thought processes of his characters. He’s very good at this. I suppose it’s why people still read his books. Nobody would read The Portrait of a Lady because they really cared about Isabel; that’s not to be considered.

This entry was posted in fiction, writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s