Three female portraits

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December 31, 2014 by AK

I have come across at least two comparisons of Amanda Knox to Isabel Archer, the protagonist of The Portrait of a Lady, a great American novel by Henry James. I had tried reading James before but found him boringly pedantic. Some time in 2014 I gave The Portrait of a Lady a try and was fully engrossed after two dozen pages. It turned out an unforgettable portrait of a young American woman, a lady both strikingly individual and representative of a type to which America must owe its transcendental greatness.

Archer and Knox are both young, independent-minded, honest, and tragically naive – suicidally unversed in the workings of the sad world. Both are gifted with the ability to attract men, unwillingly and innocently. Both get trapped in Italy – Isabel by two deviously Continentalized Americans, Amanda by Italy’s perverse legal system and the Anglo-Italian gutter press. (The family of the murdered English student, which is self-interestedly pursuing Knox’s conviction despite clear evidence of her innocence, is headed by a semi-retired English tabloid journalist with extensive connections in that murky underworld and a son working for the BBC.)

Isabel Archer appears before us possessed of what appears a well-formed, deeply personal view of the world and of herself, however detached from the reality of human relationships, and her insistence on being true to herself is the source both of her attraction and her suffering. There is definitely something of her in Amanda Knox, who wanted to be a writer from an early age and had a habit of writing down, rather than speaking out, her emotions and reactions to people. But Knox’s well-written memoir, Waiting to Be Heard, is more of a Bildungsroman, a tale of education by pain, rather than a journey of a preternaturally mature, uncowardly immutable soul. Faced with hatred of industrial proportions and intensity almost daily (there is a nasty and mendacious anti-Knox campaign on the net), Knox has never responded in kind. This is another parallel to Isabel, who returns to Italy at the end of the novel ostensibly to help the daughter of the two people who had ruined her life to avoid confinement in a convent and an arranged marriage.

Done with James, I set out to reread Anna Karenina. Tolstoy is a completely different sort of narrator than James, and a very detail-oriented painter. One cannot forget Anna’s beautiful, old-fashionedly full arms or Vronsky’s thick legs and down-to-earth stockiness. James develops his characters through dialog, often ethically charged, like Racine’s. Whether because of the difference in approach or for some other reason, but as noted by a bilious contemporary critic, Anna is merely a beautiful woman trapped in an unhappy,  unsatisfying marriage. Tolstoy did not permit her to engage in philosophizing over life-and-death issues, even as Levin spends pages poring over these things with the greatest seriousness of a new-order landowner. It’s not true that all Russian classics shared that patronizing view – take Pushkin for one…


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