Henry James and the Kiss of White Lightning


Henry James’ The Portrait of A Lady is not a sensuous novel. James records the trials and tribulations of courtly love while rarely delving into the realm of the erotic. The reader enjoys 487 pages of Jamesian realism until the kiss between Caspar Goodwood and Isabel Archer arrests the reader like its own bolt of white lightning. Not only is this the first erotic moment in the novel, the rendering of the scene differs vastly from the description-rich, wordy James readers have come to expect. This scene is faltering and desperate, in both language and pacing, full of melodrama and ecstasy. James’ style is not longer ground in the firm reality of the rest of the novel, but has departed into the realm of the surreal. James’ sexuality has long aroused speculation. His perpetual bachelorhood has generated theories of homosexuality, celibacy, and asexuality.[1] While there is no definitive evidence to support either claim, the kiss at the end of The Portrait of a Lady can be read alongside both theories. While the language of revulsion and terror could be echoes of James’ own “preoccupation with homosexual secrets,”[2] the departure from reality in this scene could be evidence for James’ own lack of sexual experience.

The tension in The Portrait of a Lady stems from the protagonist, Isabel Archer’s incompatible desires for both goodness and freedom, as Tessa Hadley observes in her introduction to Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure: “She needs to be good, she needs to be free, and she can’t be both.”[3] The kiss at the end of the novel shows these two motives most clearly at odds. While she certainly desires Caspar, as he represents freedom and escape from her unhappy marriage, she cannot leave her marriage and remain a ‘good’ woman. The staccato nature of this scene shows Isabel’s internal battle with these struggles. While she desires to accept his help and promised freedom, “She had wanted help, and here was help; it had come in a rushing torrent. I know not whether she believed everything he said; but she believed just then that to let him take her in his arms would be the next best thing to her dying,”[4] she also is terrified of losing her goodness, begging him to leave her alone, “‘Do me the greatest kindness of all,’ she panted. ‘I beseech you to go away!’…‘As you love me, as you pity me, leave me alone!’”[5] Interestingly, James chooses this moment to insert himself. His assertion, “I know not whether she believed everything she said,” could be evidence that he relates to the plight of Isabel Archer.  It’s possible that Isabel’s struggle between goodness and freedom could represent his own suppression of homosexuality. Hadley argues, “James’s own ambiguously gendered position places him in distinction from but attraction to both differentiated genders in their heterosexual circlings and strugglings and play.”[6] While James is physically male, he may identify with this specific plight of this female character. James cannot be free to express himself sexually and still remain a respectable man, just as Isabel cannot free herself from a loveless marriage and still remain a lady.

James and Isabel are further connected by their complex relationship with father figures. While Mr. Archer is dead before the novel begins, his presence still remains, both in Isabel’s continued adoration of him, and in her search for a father in Gilbert Osmond. Alfred Habegger in his chapter, “The Fatherless Heroine and the Filial Son: Deep Background for The Portrait of a Lady” notes that Isabel is still wearing black at Gardencourt “more than a year after Mr. Archer’s death.” This period can be compared with that after the death of her child;:“she discards her mourning within six months.”[7] Habegger suggests that Isabel’s freedom began be a burden, making her wish for a domineering master or father. “[James] let her sense of freedom weigh on her so heavily that she [began] to dream of confinement, of daughterly surrender.”[8] Perhaps Isabel’s paternal attraction to Osmond is not actually at odds with her love of freedom, but an escape from that burden. James and his siblings were raised by a “narcissistic and domineering father who…used empathy to defend his interpretations of their experience and to justify his advice.”[9] This behavior led to the James children feeling alienated and misunderstood, and also to struggle with intimate relationships. Perhaps it is this emotional abandonment and James’ perverted idea of fatherhood that explains his choice for Isabel to return to Rome, to a domineering father figure. “She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.”[10] This straight path is explained the next morning when Henrietta reveals Isabel has returned to Rome. While Isabel is struggling with her simultaneous desire and repulsion for Goodwood, she feels a desire to be caught and protected, “This belief, for a moment, was a kind of rapture, in which she felt herself sink and sink. In the movement she seemed to beat with her feet, in order to catch herself, to feel something to rest on.”[11] It is this moment, when she looks for something solid that her attitude toward Caspar shifts. While she a moment ago had seen him as a savior, this line that signals a shift where Isabel wishes him to leave her alone. Perhaps this “something to rest on” is Osmond, a father who will strip her of freedom. Possibly it is James’ experience with paternal love that drives him to cause Isabel to make her ultimate choice.

James’ brother, William similarly struggled with intimacy, advocating the mental-hygiene ethos of celibacy to conserve nervous sexual energy and to channel it into art. Henry James was certainly aware of it, though there is not tangible evidence to suggest that he was certainly using it.[12] This would, however, account for his permanent bachelorhood. If that is the case, the creation of the kiss in The Portrait of a Lady could be akin to a physical sexual act for James. The kiss has overt allusions to intercourse, suggesting this passage perhaps has more sexual connotations for James himself:

His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinary as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made on with this act of possession.[13]

The spreading “white lightning” alludes to orgasm, while Goodwood’s “hard manhood” is the phallus. The use of the verb “took” referring to Isabel’s reception of the kiss has sexual undertones as well. Some have argued that James was celibate because he is “prudishly repressed, [fleeing] in horror from the open expression of sexual desire.”[14] The overt sexuality of this passage seems to squash that particular theory. If James was indeed celibate, it is more likely he reserved his sexual energy for his art.

One of the most notable things about this passage is its sudden departure from the realism for which Henry James is known. James suddenly enters a realm of sensation and sound. “‘Ah, be mine as I’m yours!’ she heard her companion cry. He had suddenly given up argument, and his voice seemed to come, harsh and terrible through a confusion of vaguer sounds.”[15] Isabel oddly remains the agent, “she heard her companion cry,” Goodwood didn’t cry himself. This has an odd effect on the passage, making it seem as though Caspar may not actually be there. There is also no explanation for these “vaguer sounds” which add a further surreal effect. The kiss itself, in addition to its overt sexuality, is so unrealistic compared with other interactions between characters in the novel. James usually stresses the subtle and the delicate while this scene is a crescendo of the melodramatic. The scene ends abruptly without page break or warning. “Two days afterwards Caspar Goodwood knocked at the door of the house in Wimpole Street in which Henrietta Stackpole occupied furnished lodgings.”[16] Not only does this paragraph open formally by referring to a character mentioned on the previous page by his first and last name, the house is given the sterile description of “furnished lodgings” causing the reader to turn back a page and ask, “Did I just read that?” The extreme sensuousness of the kiss combined with the stark realism of the next page further emphasizes the uniqueness of the kiss scene. It is possible James adopted a surreal tone because he had no sexual experience of his own, thus he feared he will be unable to portray the scene accurately. Most of James’ renderings of humanity are so realistic; they are true renderings of life. This kiss is certainly not that.

While Henry James’ sexuality remains enigmatic, the kiss in The Portrait of a Lady provides support for several theories on the subject. Echoes of James’ potential struggle with homosexuality can be seen in Isabel Archer’s contradictory desires between freedom and respectability, and her desire for a father figure. If James was celibate, the overt sexuality suggests that the passage itself may serve as a sex act for the author. The uncommon surrealism could be accounted for by James’ own lack of sexual experience. The Portrait of a Lady, while it largely remains a novel concerned with propriety and social custom, ends on a note of overt eroticism that leads the reader dazed. The reader’s bewilderment likely echoes that of Isabel Archer herself in the midst of the overpowering kiss “like white lightning.” Just as the reader returns to reality, so does our tragic, noble heroine.

[1] Tessa Hadley, Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 1.

[2] ibid

[3] ibid, 2.

[4] Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995) , 489

[5] ibid

[6] Hadley, 13.

[7] Alfred Habegger, Henry James and the “Woman Business” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989),150.

[8] Ibid, 156.

[9] Linda Simon, “Art and the Risks of Intimacy,” The New England Quarterly, Volume 72. Number 4. (1999): 618.

[10] James, 490.

[11] James, 489.

[12] Dana Luciano, “Henry James’ Thwarted Love (review)” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 47.

Number 2. (2001): 482.

[13] James, 489.

[14] Luciano, 482.

[15] James, 489.

[16] James, 490.


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