Henry James was the first novelist to write on the theme of the American versus the European with any degree of success. Almost all of his major novels may be approached as a study of the social theme of the American in Europe, in which James contrasts the active life of the American with the mannered life of the European aristocracy. Embodied in this contrast is the moral theme in which the moral innocence of the American is contrasted with the knowledge and experience (and evil) of the European.
In its most general terms, that is, in terms which will apply to almost any Jamesian novel, the contrasts are seen as follows:
The American The European
- innocence vs. knowledge or experience
- utility vs. form and ceremony
- spontaneity vs. ritual
- sincerity vs. urbanity
- action vs. inaction
- nature vs. art
- natural vs. artificial
- honesty vs. evil
The above list could be extended to include other virtues or qualities, but this list, or even half this list, will suffice to demonstrate James' theme or idea in the use of this American-European contrast.
The reader should also remember that James uses these ideas with a great deal of flexibility. It does not always hold that every European will have exactly these qualities or that every American will. In fact, some of the more admirable characters are indeed Europeans who possess many of these qualities and in turn lack others. Because a European might possess urbanity and knowledge and experience does not necessarily mean that he is artificial and evil. And quite the contrary, many Americans come with natural spontaneity and are not necessarily honest and admirable. For example, Lord Warburton possesses urbanity and adheres to forms, ceremonies, and rituals, but he is nevertheless an admirable character. On the other hand, Henrietta Stackpole, who possesses a great amount of spontaneity, is at times rather overbearing and indiscreet.
In The Portrait of a Lady, the character who represents the American in the best sense of the word is, of course, Isabel Archer. The representative of the European in the worse sense of the word is Gilbert Osmond, and to a lesser degree Madame Merle. Of course, both of these people were actually born in America, but they have lived their entire lives in Europe and consider themselves European.
One of the great differences that is emphasized is the difference between the American's practicality and the European's insistence upon form and ceremony. Isabel likes to react to any situation according to her own desires. Early in the novel, Isabel's aunt tells her that it is not proper to remain with two gentlemen without a chaperon. Isabel likes to do what she thinks is right and not what other people tell her is right. But people like Osmond know ahead of time what type of form and ceremony they will employ in any given situation. The American then acts spontaneously, while the Europeans have formalized certain rituals so that they will never have to confront an unknown situation. Thus, there is a sense of sincerity in the American's actions; whereas the European is more characterized by a sense of extreme urbanity. Throughout the novel, we never see Madame Merle or Osmond perform a spontaneous act — they are the epitome of the perfect and correct form. Everything they do is calculated according to the effect it will have. Thus, there is something false in their reactions, while Isabel's reaction strikes one as honest and sincere.
Furthermore, the American is a person of action. The Europeans have been bred to view work as vulgar; they are people of inaction. Osmond has apparently never performed any useful task. He remains inactive while the American, such as Henrietta, can enter into any type of pursuit.
The American's sense of spontaneity, sincerity, and action leads him into natural actions. He seems to represent nature itself. On the other hand, the European's emphasis on form, ceremony, ritual, and urbanity seems to suggest the artificial. It represents art as an entity opposing nature.
Finally, these qualities lead to the ultimate opposition of honesty versus evil. When all of the American's qualities are replaced by all of the European's we find that form and ritual are deemed more important than honesty. Thus, Osmond will insist upon Isabel's putting up the front of a happy marriage even though they detest each other. In other words, the form of the marriage must be maintained. James is not emphasizing that one should have all of one tendency and none of the other. The ideal person is the one who can retain all of the American's innocence and honesty, and yet gain the European's experience and knowledge. Lord Warburton is then great because he has the knowledge and experience; he has the form and ceremony and ritual. But he is not artificial, for he reacts to things with sincerity and naturalness. Isabel is great because she has retained all of her American qualities, but has learned a great deal about form and ritual and urbanity, and has also gained a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience without losing her native virtues.