Teaching The Portrait of a Lady as a Tale of Two Travelers
Keywords:Study Abroad, Education Abroad, Study abroad novel, The Portrait of a Lady
I had long considered Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady the quintessential study abroad novel, not just for the extensive travel that takes place within the storyline but for the “drama of the perceiving mind” (to use Michael Gorra’s words) that James presents us with in his heroine, Isabel Archer. If the most important outcome of education abroad is intellectual development, we must attend to what happens to students’ consciousness, and therefore The Portrait of a Lady, despite what might seem old-fashioned in its setting and plot, still benefits American students venturing out into the world. I assigned the novel for a senior seminar entitled “English Majors in the World” and instructed students to tell the story of their experience reading the novel by tracking their evolving response to Isabel Archer. Almost immediately they resisted Isabel, whom they found cold, incomprehensible, and foolish. (Even though she shares many traits of the so-called Millennials.) They demanded another assignment: to track their responses instead to her freewheeling journalist friend Henrietta Stackpole, a minor character whom I had always seen as a mere comic foil to Isabel. Moving Henrietta to stand alongside Isabel, the novel was turned into a comparative tale of two travelers, two learners abroad: one of old-world introspection and ruin-wandering, the other of new-world group travel and freedom from “drama.” The students’ struggles cast us into current debates in the field of education abroad over what conditions and assignments produce the best learning experiences. James gives only Isabel, not Henrietta, an inner life, a complex consciousness; therefore, following Henrietta forestalls the difficult but indispensable inner work of comprehending one’s own experience, which is essential to intellectual development abroad. The Portrait of a Lady remains for me the quintessential study abroad novel. Just not in the way I once thought it was.
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