I read The Portrait of a Lady
roughly four years apart from each other. Both novels had a lasting impact on me and I thought it worthwhile to compare the two.
While comparing great works of literature is a tricky business, the two books are rather revealing about the societies they were based on. Gora portrays a tumultous time in the history of Colonial India (through the happenings in Bengal), twenty years after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. The Portrait of a Lady is based roughly around the same period and portrays American naivete exploited by a scheming Europe, in the form of its main characters.
Gora has its own set of plotting characters who are complex in every European sense that Henry James might have thought of. The contradictions in presumed integrity and dignity are highlighted by both novels rather beautifully. One's sympathy stays with the characters who are simple and have a humanitarian spirit. Therein stops the similarity.
James destroys the life of his heroine, Isabel Archer, under the weight of a scheming Italian Count and his sister. The heroine sacrifices her happiness and future in the name of something bigger - the daughter of the count (through his first wife), who now looks up to Isabel for her emotional nourishment.
Tagore, on the other hand, lifts up his embattled heroines, Sucharita and Lolita, who rise up above and beyond the "heroes." Both ladies show strong character especially when everyone around them are confused. The bold portrayal of the two women almost borders on scandalous if one were to consider the society of the time. It never ceases to wonder me how Tagore got away with it, deeply impacting the psyche of his readers. This probably underlines Tagore's style of criticizing with empathy, from the inside.
It is also worth bringing in Thomas Hardy
's writings for a social contrast. Hardy had imagined much of modern society around the late 19th century. His books read like futuristic social experiments, all of them centered on humanism and visionary ideas, many of which have been realized. The whole notion of man and woman living together outside of wedlock caused much bible-rattling and consternation amongst the clerics of the time, apart from burning of Hardy's books. If one looks at Western society today, it bears a surprising similarity to Hardy's ideas.
It is interesting to note that Tagore took on the caste system, the conflict between the Brahmo Samaj and traditional Hindu ritualists and finally the oppression of Muslims. Between the Brahmos and the ritualists, it was clear that the former had hippocrites who had simply changed their affiliations. The new order of the Brahmos with belief in a formless God did not help many people become any less dogmatic. Tagore then brings out beautiful people on both sides, who have transcended the dogmatism, and who truly represent the best of their worlds. I think this is an important technique- to get the right to judge, one has to be in that society and locate beauty hidden in the darkness
. Tagore was well-versed in Hinduism and his family was closely associated with the Brahmo Samaj. The result of his literature has been a significant reduction of caste considerations in Bengal and some other states in India. The techniques of the three writers are interesting to me from the standpoint of its effect on the people of the time. I would love to hear from students of James, Hardy or Tagore on what they think the impact has been.
On a final note, after reading Hardy and James, I have often felt dejected, sad and demoralized, upset with society for subverting personal freedom. While reading Tagore though, I find myself going through these emotions early on, spurring on the characters as they rise up in a remarkable manner and finally celebrate their triumph. I feel uplifted and energized. I wonder if this difference has any significance.