Patrick Fessenbecker, "Freedom, Self-Obligation, and Selfhood in Henry James" (pp. 69–95)

In this essay I argue for a new interpretation of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady (1880–81, revised 1908). After briefly surveying the history of interpretations of the novel, I argue that critics have failed to understand the peculiar nature of Isabel Archer's volitional state, particularly in her decision to stay with her abusive husband at the end of the novel. Isabel, I demonstrate, is constrained in an important and binding way, but the source of the constraint is simply herself, in a philosophically perplexing way. This essay attempts to illuminate these features of the novel by drawing on the philosophical resources in Harry G. Frankfurt's works, particularly his notion of "wantons," or agents who do not care about their wills and thus are in an important sense not persons, as well as his concept of a "volitional necessity," a complex of cares, desires, and beliefs that is so essential to an agent's personhood that actions on behalf of the necessity feel inevitable. Though the agent cannot help but act on the necessity, she nevertheless feels importantly free, because the compulsory force is simply her self. The essay then concludes by briefly suggesting how these Frankfurtian ideas might suggest new interpretations of other James novels, which I introduce through short discussions of The Wings of the Dove (1902) and The Ambassadors (1903).

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