Wanting Happiness

by Laura Cioni

Speaking of the novel, Henry James compares it to a gigantic spider web, as big as the world, which excludes nothing and includes everything that happens on earth. An American transplanted to Europe, he wrote from the viewpoint of the expatriate experience. His best-loved book, thanks also to a successful movie version, is perhaps Portrait of a Lady. What is immediately most striking in this book is the theme of happiness–many times the characters talk about their desire to be happy, their efforts to become happy, and their pain at not being happy any longer, or not yet.
The masterful presentation of this that Pietro Citati gives us in his essay Il male assoluto (“The Absolute Evil”), a journey to the heart of the nineteenth-century novel, approaches the theme from another viewpoint, the negative one, from what radically opposes itself to the realization of happiness. Even without the skill of a critic, anyone reading the almost 700 pages of this novel, all centering on one character, Isabel Archer, and what goes on around her, feels immediately the almost physical sensation of a disquieting, shadowy atmosphere whenever Madame Merle appears, despite the sunny color of her hair and her ability as a pianist. This sense of disquiet takes shape and becomes fear and foreboding when Gilbert Osmond comes onto the scene, an enigmatic and disillusioned aesthete who goes on to marry the heroine. It is the presence of evil, hidden behind the veneer of courtesy, tact, and perfect form, which, just like a spider web, envelopes Isabel, those around her, those who try to warn her, and even the reader.
It is no coincidence that the novel begins in an English garden, in the heart of the ultimate European civilization, an earthly paradise, as it were, but without God, where only the tree of life grows, and that it ends in Rome, the tragic heart of Italy, where the sadness of the ruins still teeming with life reflects Isabel’s own sadness. She is not only the central figure, but seems not to belong to limited reality: she is the soul, vast, pure, luminous, and boundless.
Citati maintains that James is a great modern theologian and that for him, evil does not consist so much in wicked actions as in a climate, an atmosphere, something unspeakable that nonetheless can be felt. Isabel loves life, but her marriage, the fruit of a deception that she will discover only at the end, slowly snuffs her out, even though her beauty becomes even more vibrant. Her cousin Ralph Touchett loves her in a pure way, and despite his illness, he stands by her discreetly all through life. It is only when he is on his deathbed that Isabel rediscovers for an instant the happiness of her early youth, the happiness that she had pursued by traveling all over Europe. If James is a theologian, it is not bizarre to maintain that Ralph is an image of Christ.