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The nature of self

One thing that made Henry James a great novelist is that he was, on the one hand and like his brother, a great psychologist, and on the other hand he was capable of and willing to place two seemingly similar characters together then juxtapose them in just such a way as to show how very different they really are, as in the following conversation between Madame Merle and Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady:

“When you’ve lived as long as I you’ll see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There’s no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we’re each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances. What shall we call our “self”? Where does it begin? where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us—and then it flows back again. I know a large part of myself is in the clothes I choose to wear. I’ve a great respect for things! One’s self—for other people—is one’s expression of one’s self; and one’s house, one’s furniture, one’s garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps—these things are all expressive.”

This was very metaphysical; not more so, however, than several observations Madame Merle had already made. Isabel was fond of metaphysics, but was unable to accompany her friend into this bold analysis of the human personality. “I don’t agree with you. I think just the other way. I don’t know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me. Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me; everything’s on the contrary a limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one. Certainly the clothes which, as you say, I choose to wear, don’t express me; and heaven forbid they should!”

Then, with no subtlety whatsoever, Merle responds to Isabel’s objection with a compliment that reveals how little she thinks of Isabel’s claim: “You dress very well.” Isabel rejoins, but she’s clearly out of her league in this conversation, and it dies quickly. Nevertheless, the point is made: Merle believes self is malleable; Isabel believes it static. The revelation says much about both their characters.