Passage of the Day: Henry James

This passage, taken from James’s Portrait of a Lady, describes Isabel Archer’s first impressions of Rome and how she is affected by the deep history of the city:

Vol 1: XXVII

She had always been fond of history, and here was history in the stones of the street and the atoms the sunshine. She had an imagination that kindled at the mention of great deeds, and wherever she turned some great deed had been acted. These things strongly moved her, but moved her all inwardly. It seemed to her companions that she talked less than usual, and Ralph Touchett, when he appeared to be looking listlessly and awkwardly over her head, was really dropping on her an intensity of observation. The sense of the terrible human past was heavy to her, but that of something altogether contemporary would suddenly give it wings that it could wave in the blue. Her consciousness was so mixed that she scarcely knew where the different parts of it would lead her, and she went about in a repressed ecstasy of contemplation, seeing often in the things she looked at a great deal more than was there, and yet not seeing many of the items enumerated in her Murray. Rome, as Ralph said, confessed to the psychological moment.

This passage does a wonderful job exploring the complex blossoming of Isabel’s knowledge. The extensive history of Rome brings to light for her all the qualities that, up to this point, she’d kept private and imagined — the shock of this revelation is smartly conveyed by James through Isabel’s sudden silence; perhaps my favorite part of the entire passage “It seemed to her companions that she talked less than usual…”

Interestingly, though the passage is focalized through Isabel, James takes advantage, and kills two birds with one stone, so to speak, by making Isabel’s silence equally important to Ralph’s character; we learn by his intense observation that Ralph is concerned and even disturbed at the changes occurring in Isabel’s life.

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