Portrayals of Commodus, From the Senate Floor to Hollywood

Lucius Aurelius Commodus reigned as emperor during the Roman empire’s apex. At nineteen years old he became the most powerful man on earth. Perhaps nowhere else in history was there more promise. Then when the young emperor first adorned the purple. However bright his beginnings, no one foresaw the tyranny and excesses that later defined his place in history. Remembered as one of Rome’s major villains, his likeness is reimagined across generations through screenplays, art, video games, biographical pieces, theatre, and a plethora of histories. The retelling of Commodus’ deeds has entertained and enlightened many, yet he is often portrayed by inaccurate reimaginations. One example is his depiction in modern cinema, the Gladiator[1] which seen in light of scholarship and his own contemporaries, misses countless complexities that molded one of histories most feared autocrats.

Facts & Fiction

            The screenplay Gladiator, not unlike Commodus’ contemporaries with their histories, will build an arc to tell a specific narrative. This is true regardless of a screenwriter’s pursuit to sew tension or a contemporary Roman historian, for example, attempting to justify a later imperial’s position on the throne.[2] History nor art, is rarely if ever told neutrally. Keep in mind every generation’s reimagining has an agenda, some entertainment, often nationalistic, others defacement, et cetera. Ridley Scott, Cassius Dio, Herodian, and many others are no exception to this reality. Understanding this dynamic allows for adequate separating of facts from fiction. Only then is an accurate comparison of portrayals possible.

            First, start by separating facts from fiction regarding Ridley Scott’s, Gladiator. The plot begins with Marcus Aurelius, Commodus’ father in the last days of his life. Deep in the Germanic woods he meets his end at the hand of his own son. The jealousy of missing out on the crown because his father favors Maximus, exposes to the watcher Commodus’ first great act of villainy. Powerful, unsettling, and a perfect plot foundation. Only it didn’t happen. Marcus Aurelius was never hostile to the thought of Commodus on the throne.[3] From early childhood Commodus was actively groomed for the imperial purple. In fact, at five years old Commodus was proclaimed a Caesar.[4] Of course when mindful of creating a screenplay arc, it makes sense Gladiator would need to reveal Commodus’ villainy early, even inaccurately to pace the film under say twenty hours. Fact here, Marcus Aurelius did die on the frontier and was succeeded by his nineteen-year-old son.[5] Fiction, Commodus murdered his own father.

            Knowing why this is important to analyze is in itself of utmost importance. Commodus is often portrayed as an inept, spoilt, cowardly, and mentally ill man. None of these are true. What spelled disaster for his reign was really a combination of severe complexities. Nearly always overlooked was the fact despite Marcus Aurelius’ reasonable expectations the Senate and his advisors would help guide his son in matters of state; when the time of his death came, internal strife prevented such an ideal arrangement in practice. One example would be how the Senate splintered under Commodus’ decision to not continue his father’s expansionist policies in Germania.[6]

            However, blighted the young Emperor often was by those meant to help him succeed, Commodus did them no favors. It is well documented that dressed as a gladiator; Commodus threatened Senators sitting front row in the Colosseum by waving the head of a decapitated ostrich.[7] This clearly captures the sadism of a corrupt autocracy and personality of a young emperor who offered little to no respect regarding the institution of the Senate. A grave mistake.

            The facts in regard to the screenplay are Commodus was unstable, disrespectful, and a tyrant. Not to mention his lust for the mass’s approval was infectious. The fictions are how Ridley Scott created and completed his arc. Commodus did not kill his father and he himself did not die in the arena. He was assassinated in 192 CE,[8] after only twelve years on the throne. The film accurately caught the ethos of Roman culture during the sadist rule of Commodus, bloodlust and corruption. This in its own right is commendable and should not be overlooked.

Cassius Dio & Herodian

            Senator and historian, Cassius Dio is arguably the best firsthand witness to Commodus. His writings paint a vivid portrait condemning the emperor for his lack of devotion to matters of state. Cassius Dio tells that Commodus devoted his life to ease, horses, and combat of wild beasts and men.[9] The emperors disregard for handling matters of state and his perpetual purge of personal enemies filled Rome with terror. When a plague broke out in Rome, and at one point two thousand people were dying a day, Romans feared the emperor’s wrath more than the gods; “Now the death of these victims passed unheeded for Commodus was a greater curse to the Romans than any pestilence or any crime.”[10]

            It is important to note that such a damning account will be replete with bias. However, a historian’s lamentation does not make him wholly inaccurate. Having personally lived through the reign of Commodus and taken part in much of what he seen; Cassius Dio is an instrumental witness.

            Another historian is Herodian. Sharing with Cassius Dio many similar lamentations regarding Commodus, he reinforces the ineptness of the emperor. One of these complaints was how the emperor simply handed over all communication to go through his chamberlain Perennis.[11]Perennis was cruel, but efficient. Again, proper context should be given. This decision was largely a result of the emperor’s refusal to appear in public in response to his sister’s plot to kill him. Though Perennis was soon replaced by Cleander, who became Commodus’ new chamberlain after exposing Perennis’ own plot to overthrow the emperor.[12]  If Herodian is to be believed, Commodus learned of the plot while attending a festival, before an entire audience seated in a theatre.[13] Commodus certainly, if not constantly feared for his life. An event like this would have been humiliating. Circumstances like this perhaps contributed toward his fanatic behavior.


A consistent narrative across scholars, his contemporaries, and screen play writers is the message that Commodus had little to no respect for his duties and unleashed a reign of terror. Though much scholarship has tried to figure out why Commodus was the way he was, history lacks any empirical explanations. Scholars are left asking questions that may never be answered. Was the office too big for him? Was being born into his duty, in itself a corrupting feature? Perhaps it was his love for reading and imitating emperor Nero that drove his excesses?[14] Did he really see himself equal to Hercules? He did erect a colossus depicting himself as much?[15] Was he simply mad? Was the constant threat on his life what drove him mad? The pursuit of these questions has inspired interest into Commodus for generations.

Regardless of what it was that led to the autocratic behavior Commodus exhibited, his legacy is immortalized. Even if it is for negligence, jealousy, and tyranny; Commodus would be pleased he didn’t fall into obscurity. His portrayal from the ancient Senate floor to Hollywood has remained consistently negative. Though facts are often stretched to arc the narrative as the writer sees fit, commonalities in his portrayals help uncover just how difficult ruling Rome must have been. From the start Commodus was manipulated by his own counsel for personal gain. This alone might provide reasonable insight into his personal disdain toward the Senate. Where Gladiator missed Commodus’ bright beginnings, his contemporaries overwhelm history with evidence the emperor was not naturally evil, but a product of circumstances.

Join 717 other subscribers


“Gladiator.” Ridley Scott. DreamWorks Distribution, (2000).

Mary Beard. “SPQR,” A History of Ancient Rome. (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing, 2015): 43-398

Gary North. “Gladiator,” A Review. (lewrockwell.com, www.lewrockwell.com, 2001).

Allen M. Ward, Fritz M. Heichelheim, Cedric A. Yeo. “A History of The Roman People,” Sixth Edition. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016): 368-371

Cassius Dio. “Roman History,” Vol IX, Book LXXII. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927): 94-103

Donald L. Wasson. “Commodus.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. (www.ancient.eu/commodus, 2013).

Mary Beard. “Confronting the classics,” Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations. (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing, 2014): 145

Herodian. “History of The Roman Empire Since the Death of Marcus Aurelius.” Vol I, Book I. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927): I.IX

[1] “Gladiator.” Ridley Scott. DreamWorks Distribution, (2000).

[2] Mary Beard. “SPQR,” A History of Ancient Rome. (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing, 2015): 43

[3] Gary North. “Gladiator,” A Review. (lewrockwell.com, www.lewrockwell.com, 2001): par III

[4] Allen M. Ward, Fritz M. Heichelheim, Cedric A. Yeo. “A History of The Roman People,” Sixth Edition. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016): 368

[5] Allen M. Ward, Fritz M. Heichelheim, Cedric A. Yeo. “A History of The Roman People,” Sixth Edition. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016): 368

[6] Allen M. Ward, Fritz M. Heichelheim, Cedric A. Yeo. “A History of The Roman People,” Sixth Edition. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016): 369

[7] Mary Beard. “SPQR,” A History of Ancient Rome. (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing, 2015): 398

[8] Allen M. Ward, Fritz M. Heichelheim, Cedric A. Yeo. “A History of The Roman People,” Sixth Edition. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016): 371

[9] Cassius Dio. “Roman History,” Vol IX, Book LXXII. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927): 94

[10]Cassius Dio. “Roman History,” Vol IX, Book LXXII. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927): 103

[11] Donald L. Wasson. “Commodus.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. (www.ancient.eu/commodus, 2013): par IV

[12] Donald L. Wasson. “Commodus.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. (www.ancient.eu/commodus, 2013): par V

[13] Herodian. “History of The Roman Empire Since the Death of Marcus Aurelius.” Vol I, Book I. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927): I.IX

[14] Mary Beard. “Confronting the classics,” Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations. (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing, 2014): 145

[15] Mary Beard. “Confronting the classics,” Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations. (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing, 2014): 145

Masters of The Craft: Stephen Crane, The Herald of Naturalism

Stephen Crane, The Herald of Naturalism

Stephen Crane

            Few writers achieve the distinction of master, herald, or avant garde of entire genres, but Stephen Crane, the crown jewel of naturalism, rests in the pantheon of literary history among the  immortal few, near divine, writers whose works will outlast time itself.  Crane wrote with, at the time, a unique, not seen before, style and voice, and he compounded his mastery over language with exceptional attention to detail; thus, allowing him to microscope the human condition—the plight of living and dying according to one’s circumstances.

            Stephen Crane’s, 1871-1900, career was replete with flare, ingenuity, and influence but, unfortunately, brief; He died at only twenty-eight. A few of his notable works are Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893)his debut, considered the first complete work of naturalism, novel, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), War is King (1899), and, of course, the infamous short story The Open Boat (1898). Crane can be considered, without stretch, to be the American version of Victor Hugo. Crane, a student of European naturalists, was committed to write the truth, “He was convinced that if a story is transcribed in its actuality, as it appeared to occur in life, it will convey its own emotional weight without sentimental heightening, moralizing, or even interpretive comment” (Perkins, Perkins 815). This idea of creating characters and putting them in the path of realistic circumstances and observing how they worked themselves through their plights, without conveying an author’s opinion, was, at the time, revolutionary.

            There is more, here, than Crane’s infatuation with writing the truth—naturalism; One, artists can only write well what they know; and two, life, truly experienced, is not filled with moral themes and positive character arcs; sometimes, as in life, characters have negative arcs and, without much choice, compromise their ethical positions. People are a product of their circumstances; they are, in a sense, unable to control the evolution of mankind’s predicament. The world, no matter how much one may wish it untrue, is chaotic, dark, selfish, and competitive; a life-lesson everyone learns, some too young, but all will eventually. Consider this, “he was initially in agreement with the naturalistic belief that the destiny of human beings, like the biological fate of other creatures [referring to natural selection], is so much determined by factors beyond the control of individual will or choice that ethical judgement or moral comment by the author is irrelevant or impertinent” (Perkins, Perkins 815). This truth is the defining characteristic of naturalistic literature.

            Crane knew struggle; he knew, all too well, the cards life hands out, and how unromantic existence is for most people. His life began in Newark, New Jersey, and he was the youngest of fourteen children to a Methodist Minister. His father died when he was still a young boy. Crane wrestled early the pain which life, for no rational reason, dealt him. His troubled upbringing did not bring him intimate with faith, in fact it did the opposite. Crane once joked his family were, “the old ambling-nag, saddle-bag, exhorting kind [of ministers]” (Crain par. III). Without his father, the family struggled financially, “as a teenager Crane worked for an older brother’s news agency and later left college to work as a reporter in New York City” (Gioia, Gwynn 195). One grows up early when one grows up poor. One can, easily, even to some degree confidently, assume within this context and his exposure to the calamity of other’s struggle—through being a newspaper reporter—Crane did not find life rosy. There is nothing romantic in suffering. Perhaps, it was these circumstances that Crane decided for himself, as an artist, as a writer, as a storyteller, that he would rip off the band aid and write the truth—naturalism.

            He proved himself the master, the herald, the avant garde of a new style of craft, and the apex naturalist author. There are laws one must follow in every art, and fiction is no different. These laws, rules, are what, when followed, breathes life into an author’s prose. However, in Crane’s case, like all other geniuses from all other mediums of art and academics and sciences etcetera, he was a pioneer, “he [Crane] pioneered free verse and plainspoken idiom—techniques that seemed radically innovative at the end of the nineteenth century…” (Gioa, Gwynn 195). As a consequence, the next generation, the masters of existentialism in particular, would turn his style into common practice. The most famous of all the writers he inspired was the legend Ernest Hemingway—considered, the inventor of modern fiction and its discipline of tight and active prose. In laymen terms, Crane wasted no time inserting his own thoughts; he simply revealed, through his craft, the plight of the human condition, without opinion and without judgement. His only footprint in his work is his belief in determinism.

            The Red Badge of Courage is considered the pinnacle of his achievement. It is a panoramic view on the psychological struggle one finds themselves wrestling in war. There is no doubt, and no contesting, that this novel is a great work of literature. However, it is the opinion of this author [me] that The Open Boat is his masterpiece. The Open Boat (1898)is short fiction, otherwise, and perhaps more popularly, known as a short story. Unlike The Red Badge of Courage, Crane wrote from firsthand experience.

Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

“Throughout these pages, the reader finds the brushwork of the master, and like all great artists, James can not only paint a story by the prowess of his craft, but, simultaneously, he hangs a mirror of enigmas and human complexity. Every reader can relate to the figurative handcuff’s persons’ finds themselves confined to.” —W. Alexander

            On New Year’s Eve, 1896, Stephen Crane, aboard the Commodore experienced a shipwreck, “Working as an ordinary seaman, Crane helped bail the flooding water [the ship had sprung a leak] until the order came to abandon ship. Crane and other survivors spent thirty hours on the open sea before reaching land” (Gioa, Gwynn 213). Crane wrote a newspaper account himself on the wreck, “Now the whistle of the Commodore had been turned loose, and if there ever was a voice of despair and death, it was in the voice of this whistle…it was as if its [the ship] throat was already choked by the water, and this cry on the sea at night, with a wind blowing the spray over the ship, and the waves roaring over the bow, and swirling white along the decks, was to each of us probably a song of man’s end” (Crane par. I). Even in his own factual account, Crane’s style fills his readers with despair; every verb he uses themes chaos and fear—choked, cry, blowing, roaring, and swirling.

            The Open Boat may have easily been a best-selling nonfictional account which would have dazzled readers across the globe, but Crane had a different idea: he wanted to tell the truth, the whole truth. Such truth can only be told in fiction. One excerpt from his short story, which reminds readers there is more than men riding together in a dingy hoping for rescue, there is a bond formed, “It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him” (Crane 10). Anyone that has ever been in the unfortunate position of complete despair, a battlefield, a stranded boat, or lost in the forest will swear this is true: a bond is fused, which will last a lifetime, between them and those that shared in the experience. The fears experienced in life tattoos the heart far easier than the joys.

            So, Crane told his truth; he shared the plight of surviving on the high seas; he wrote with vivid imagery, to provide his readers with the exactness of the experience—only fiction can do this well, “Crane’s characteristic use of vivid imagery is demonstrated throughout this story to underscore both the beauty and terror of natural forces” (Poetry Foundation par. VII). His syntax, his weaving of prose, highlights more than just the natural truth of-a-thing, he explores ethical questions too.

            Ethical compromises seem to have a place in all his works. Caleb Crain, in The New Yorker captures naturalism in a nutshell, “In narratives of the hopeless and the near-hopeless, of human beings experiencing powerlessness and self-delusion, he [Stephen Crane] managed to record a new kind of consciousness, giving the reader glimpses of the self as an opaque and somewhat mechanistic thing” (Crain par. III). This revealing of a mechanistic approach is no doubt why Stephen Crane is considered the herald of naturalism.

            Crane’s mastery of craft and passion for elaborating on naturalistic themes lays the seed for the later literary movement of existentialism, albeit, in Crane’s day, the world still held the illusion of its institutions and their reliance. The façade of civilization’s reliability was only beginning to crack—new ideas emanated across the globe, and the world then, much like today, seemed to be near boiling over—which it did in WW1. This is why Crane is considered the avant garde of plain-spoken and direct writing—no higher themes, no moralizing, only the truth of the matter. A true idea, a portrait of reality, can and should stand on its own without embellishing it with higher purpose. The story must reflect life’s very real, very raw, realities and her uglies.

            There is little doubt Stephen Crane is one of the most, if not the most, innovative writer of his day. He, like the European naturalists he loved and studied, was obsessed with showing that life is largely deterministic in nature and is indifferent to mankind’s suffering. He looked at life with sober indifference; there was nothing anyone could do, but what they did, in certain circumstances. There are no martyrs of the poor and helpless. People live miserable lives and are treated like miserable wretches by those of privilege. The latter is as true today as it was in his day, and every generation since the first generation of mankind.

            Crane is the crown jewel of naturalism. He was inspired by the plight of the human condition—that one’s choices are according to circumstances; he committed to writing this truth without embellishing it with higher moralism or themes. He simply painted, with words, portraits of the inner machinations of one’s life; he microscoped and copied what he observed, and wrote, for all the world to see, a portrait of the human psyche. He was a heartbeat away from existentialism, which his legacy, no doubt, influenced the style of the modernist and the literary generations to follow. Determinism, a major influence on the naturalistic style, has spread its roots ten-fold in the modern world, and as a result, one can easily surmise that Crane was the avant garde of an entire worldview being manifested in prose. Civilization and art have come full circle: mankind has returned to the mythological psychology of accepting that they cannot escape fate; their actions are products of their place in the world.

            The Open Boat is a work of genius. Here, without research, without study, he wrote a story from which he had personally experienced. He, like all the great masters, turns his sentences on strong verbs, and as he used consistency, plain—spoken language, radical close attention to detail, to capture the truth—the exactness—of what it is like to be stranded at sea. He added no color to his work other than what would realistically be seen. His story is even more impressive when one realizes, despite escaping death, death stalked him, and he died two years later of tuberculosis.

Fiction is the vehicle which truth is revealed, and Crane, perhaps, more than any other author of his generation proved this to be true. His writing style compares to the artistic movement of impressionism—he paints, with words, what is before him and without judgement. All great writers master the craft, but Crane—like Whitman, like Dickinson, like Hemingway, like Hugo, like Pope, like Voltaire, like Homer, like Kafka, like Woolf—had a touch of the divine; that unteachable it factor, and it is among the company of these writers where he lives forever in the pantheon of literary immortality.

Crane’s work can be identified in regard to the ethical compromises one faces in specific, negative, circumstances. One’s pursuit of virtue is largely affected by one’s place in the world, and, similar to the natural world, one’s ecosystem—community—and their position and predicament in life is largely out of their control. His legacy is far more than the herald of naturalism, he was among the first to shine a light on the plight of humanity, without comment or opinion, and show the world the very real mental gymnastics characters, like people in real life, must navigate according to their circumstances.

Works Cited

Crain, Caleb. “The Red and The Scarlet: The Hectic career of Stephen Crane, the chronicler of the undermined self.” The New Yorker, June 30, 2014 Iss., 2014, New York, NY., par. III). Accessed May 2021. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/30/the-red-and-the-scarlet

Crane, Stephen. “The Sinking of The Commodore, New York Press, 7 Jan 1897: Author’s Perspective.” The Art of The Short Story: 52 Great Authors, Their Best Short Fiction, and Their Insights on Writing, Pearson Longman Publishing, Boston, MA, 2006, pp. 213-216. Print.

Crane, Stephen. The Open Boat. E-artnow publishing, Apple Books, MacReader, 2013, pp. 10. E-book.

Gioa, Dana & Gwynn, R.S., “Stephen Crane.” The Art of The Short Story: 52 Great Authors, Their Best Short Fiction, and Their Insights on Writing, Pearson Longman Publishing, Boston, MA, 2006, pp. 195. Print.

Gioa, Dana & Gwynn, R.S., “The Open Boat.” The Art of The Short Story: 52 Great Authors, Their Best Short Fiction, and Their Insights on Writing, Pearson Longman Publishing, Boston, MA, 2006, pp. 196-213. Print.

Perkins, Perkins. “Stephen Crane: Author Bio.” The American Tradition in Literature, Volume 2, edition 12, McGraw-Hill, Inc., 2021, pp. 814-815. E-Textbook Liberty University English 341.

Poetry Foundation. “Stephen Crane, 1871-1900.” Poetry Foundation, Poets, par. VII. Accessed May 2021. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/stephen-crane

Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Henry James authored one of American literature’s prized realist masterpieces: The Portrait of a Lady. Considered a psychological novel, because of James’s microscopic emphasis into the innermost characterizations—internal action, circumstances, and how these forces develop external, plot moving actions—regarding his characters; he creates tantalizing themes of freedom versus oppression, and the progression, or degression, of self-knowledge through psychological and moral decisions—The Portrait of a Lady is a painting, lavishly brushed by words, which tells the truth of the human psyche.

            James’s psychological novel attaches significant emphasis on his characters innermost motives, and how they contemplate their external and internal circumstances, therefore, ultimately, weaving these inner tensions into external action—physical plot progression. James will time-and-time-again provide his readers with intimate, microscopic views into a character’s inner conflict. For example, consider Isabel Archer, the novel’s protagonist, “…I’m absorbed in myself—I look at life too much as a doctor’s prescription…Why should I be so afraid of not doing right? As if it mattered to the world whether I do right or wrong” (James 196). The psychological novel is, although prose fiction, a close study of humanity.

            In addition to the riches found within a character’s innermost motivations, another example of James’s prowess in developing his psychological novel is his unique use of theme. The masterpiece The Portrait of a Lady, although replete with sub-themes, is most recognized by Isabel Archer’s arcing struggles between oppression and freedom and independence versus destiny. Ezra Pound wrote, “What he [James] fights is ‘influence,’ the impinging of family pressure, the impinging of one personality upon another” (Quoted by Lane par. xvi). James detested tyranny and the petty personal oppressions he witnessed everyday persons inflict upon each other. His, literary, voice reflects this contempt throughout The Portrait of a Lady. It is the unique frequent indecisions of his protagonist Isabel Archer’s, her inner conflicts with external consequences, need to stand on one’s own self-sufficiency, and her culture’s desire to rein her into the larger world’s conformity of marriage and obedience, that makes this psychological novel worthy of its home in the pantheon of literary masterpieces.

            However, despite James’s impressive weave of great emphasis regarding inner character, and his larger theme of oppression versus freedom, there is yet another, stronger, undebatable footprint of the perfect psychological novel: James writes the truth. This truth is the selfish self-interest of other person’s desire for psychological domination (control) or, more common, the extent of scheming and ambitious lies some persons will steep to subdue and extinguish another’s light—a person’s innocence. For example, Osmond, Isabel Archer’s eventual husband and the novel’s chief antagonist, never fell in love with Isabel; he fooled her in order to subdue her; he wanted her as a trophy, “That is what monsters do, especially the polite and patient ones: they harvest souls. Hand them a human in full bloom, and what they give back to you, after a few seasons, is a pressed flower” (Lane par. xvi). Humanity is often a horror story, and happy endings are not realistic stories.

This point of realism, life is often a horror story, is very much the eternal truth of James’s psychological novel; a genre devoted to the analytic study of the human condition; and, in his, the plight of self-degeneration through psychological manipulation. In laymen terms, the hell one finds themselves in once they realize they have altered their entire life for someone based upon a lie. And like, Isabel, it is often that everyone else can see the truth, but the one under their oppressor’s influence. In Isabel’s case, she becomes a victim of her own designs, “Isabel proceeds to marry Osmond, who she believes loves her and with whom she thinks she can relinquish the pressure to perform. She unfortunately rather quickly discovers the ruse and realizes he is the suitor most desirous of wiping her clean of any interiority” (Krzeminski 279). Perhaps, it could be argued her remark a third of the way through the novel was spoken from complete naivety (innocence) and foreshadowed the suffering that later came, “…to judge wrong, I think, is more honorable than not to judge at all” (James 143). By the end of the novel, and by a stroke of writing genius on James’s part, these words were no longer her truth.

            Henry James painted his theme of oppression versus freedom with microscopic emphasis on his characters innermost conflicts. The Portrait of a Lady is a masterpiece, not because of good versus evil, or anecdotes of adventures and trials; the novel is a masterpiece because it captures, like none before and few after, the human psyche down to the finest detail. James’s work reflects the progression and digression of his protagonist’s self-knowledge. By the end, the reader is left hanging. Isabel Osmond, as she is now, refuses to satisfy us with any epiphanic change; she does not, after confessing her plight to Ralph and kissing Casper, break for freedom, but in James’s fashion, she is handcuffed by her situation, which she blames herself for allowing, and, thus, she goes on, like so many women did and still do, without freedom, and with every reader questioning why, back to her prison of a marriage.

            Together, the theme and Isabel’s, surprising, negative character arc creates arguably the best psychological novel ever to be written, per its genre. As the reader travels its pages, they are confronted with a mirror, a work replete with accusing self-examinations, and, therefore, the reader is left, not watching, but considering the raw complexity of the human psyche, their own psyche.

  The footprint of realism has always been to write the truth; the common man or woman’s plight, and the mental gymnastics all persons, from all classes, perform are what makes this novel a psychological masterpiece. Throughout these pages, the reader finds the brushwork of the master, and like all great artists, James can not only paint a story by the prowess of his craft, but, simultaneously, he hangs a mirror of enigmas and human complexity. Every reader can relate to the figurative handcuff’s persons’ finds themselves confined to.


James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. Seedbox Press, LLC. Apple Books, 2015, pp. 143-196. e—book.

Krzeminski, Jessica. “The discovery was tremendous: Sex, Secrets, and Selfhood in The Portrait of a Lady.” The Henry James Review, article, Vol. 40., Iss. 3, 2019,pp. 279. Accessed 2021. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/docview/2315565534/fulltextPDF/5B39C5728E734785PQ/1?accountid=12085

Lane, Anthony. “Out of The Frame, A New Portrait of Henry James’s ‘The Portrait of a Lady.’” The New Yorker, article, Books, Iss. September 2012., par. XVI. Accessed 2021. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/09/03/out-of-the-frame

More from W. Alexander

The Miraculous Rise of Phillis Wheatley

Photo Credit: Poetry Foundation

The second half of eighteenth-century America, witnessed the miraculous rise of Phillis Wheatley: An African-born slave-woman, who used the power of poetry along with her respectable connections to challenge and reverse many of the prejudices that plagued her sex and race, and, later, her genius helped inspire the abolitionist long campaign to abolish slavery. 

Wheatley, at only seven years old, found herself chained aboard a slave-trading vessel headed to Boston. When she arrived, she was sold to John and Susanna Wheatley, “The Wheatley’s were prosperous people with a wide circle of friends and active members of the New South Congregational Church” (Belasco and Johnson 599). However, her childhood was quite different than the plight of other slaves: she was taught to read and write, and was raised firmly entrenched in Boston’s Puritan religion, “she lived mostly as a member of the family and had considerable freedom to study… and received a good education, especially for a young girl of the time” (Belasco and Johnson 599). As a teenager, she discovered a passion for what would soon become the miraculous vehicle for her rise: she began to write poetry. 

Wheatley wrote in the style of the eighteenth-century English poets all her life, but like any poetic-genius, she left her own mark on literature, “while she closely followed the poetic conventions of the period, Wheatley was also an innovator…she was the founder not only of African American literary tradition but also of the tradition of black women’s writing in the United States” (Belasco and Johnson 600). Wheatley’s poetry concerned itself with the major issues that surrounded her life: politics, religion, and slavery. 

However, wonderful her poetry was, Boston proved difficult to find the funding needed to get her book published. Colonists were unwilling to support an African’s written work. This prompted the Wheatley’s to look across the Atlantic and travel to London, “…Wheatley traveled to London with the Wheatley’s son [Nathaniel] to publish her first collection of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral—the first book written by a black woman in America” (par III). In London, Wheatley was an adored sensation—England showed little racial bias. This was in contrast with, at the time, the American colonies. Yet, even after she returned to America, her talents were undeniably exceptional, and her circle of influencers and connections soon extended beyond New England and into the admirations of the most famous and powerful man in the colonies: his excellency, General of the Continental Army, and later first President of the new United States of America, George Washington. 

More Poetry

Wheatley’s beginnings were humble: she came to Boston a small girl forced from her homeland, enslaved, restricted by the disadvantages of her sex, and the plight of racial prejudices concerning her race all stood in her way. However, despite her obstacles, she achieved remarkable, miraculous heights. Her poem, To His Excellency General Washington is a prime example of her poetic talents, her admiration for General Washington, and her patriotic sensibilities, “Proceed great chief, with virtue on thy side. They ev’ry action let the goddess guide. A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine. With gold unfading Washington! be thine” (Wheatley 609). Wheatley’s rise from a small slave girl to being in correspondence with Mr. Washington was certainly no small feat. Such an accomplishment was certain to stick out in history. 

Of course, Wheatley’s poetry, like all great works of art, challenged the norms of her times both religiously and civilly. The country being built around her, that she so loved, was fast losing its religious zeal (of which she was devout), and the institution of slavery, was, naturally, an idea she would never advocate, “Wheatley recognized the contradiction between the institution of slavery in the American colonies and their struggle for “liberty,” a struggle she implicitly sought to align with the cause of freedom for the slaves” (Belasco and Johnson 601). Wheatley, certainly, showed a society built on control by the patriarchy, and a contradictory perception of superiority between the races (racial bias) that a woman, a black-woman, an African-born woman could rise to soaring heights in this new world the colonists were building. Her poetry was used by abolitionists as proof for the equality between the races. Wheatley’s legacy and popularity, especially, in New England continues to dazzle and inspire all those who learn of her miraculous rise. 

Eighteenth-century America, witnessed Phillis Wheatley overcome her humble beginnings and the challenges, at-the-time, that prejudiced her sex and race; her star ascended out of Boston and would eventually emanate its light throughout American literary history. Her poetry revealed a deep trust in God, yet it also revealed a break with political conventions— opposition to slavery, and her love for her new country. George Washington received her letters and poetry with adoration and gave testimony to her genius. Dunford 4 

Wheatley achieved the miraculous, the impossible, the unthought of: she a black-African-born-woman did not peel at the edges of prejudice, she slashed it, and all were forced to recognize her gift and confront their misplaced assumptions on the place of women and slavery.  

Join 717 other subscribers

Works Cited 

Belasco, Susan, and Linck Johnson, editors. “Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784).” The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, vol. 1.,2nd ed., Bedford St. Martin’s, 2014, pp. 599- 601. E-Textbook Liberty University English 201. 

Michals, Debra. “Phillis Wheatley.” National Women’s History Museum. National Women’s History Museum, 2015. Accessed: 20 February 2021. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/phillis-wheatley 

Wheatley, Phillis. “To His Excellency General Washington.” The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, edited by Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson, 2nd., vol.1., Bedford St. Martin’s, 2014, pp. 608-609. E- Textbook Liberty University English 201. 

More Poetry

Reading Old Books: American Literature

Provided in today’s post is a written comment I made in class. The Professor had us discuss reading early American literature from a Christian perspective. Although, I am a Christian, and I love old stories (I read them more than any other), I am critical of trying to see things from a point-of-view that, I feel, simply white washes history and art. I fear it is this kind of thinking that gives Americans a false sense of patriotic mythology.

Here is my comment. Let me know what you think.

Literature travels across time; writing unites the present with the past. By studying, in this case, American literature, we take a walk in the shoes of those early writers. We learn that despite the progress of the modern era, we as humans have not changed all that much. We fear the same terrors, we fall in love the same, we hate the same, we even reason the same. A writer puts into his/her work a great deal of their life experiences, and thus reading writers of early America, we get to share in their experiences. Literature time-travels. 

Reading American literature from a Christian point-of-view, for me, can be difficult. As they say, victors write history, and a great deal of the suffering Christian’s created in early America is often washed-over. Things like slavery and the manifest destiny concept condemns our forefathers, no doubt, to have to answer to God over supplanting millions of natives, and creating a market around the enslavement of other humans. However, no age is perfect, and we find in their literary works questions raised over these very things. Literature tends to be the vehicle that changes the hearts of men, therefore as we comb through each time-period, we will see society change, progress, and grow.

If you want to know how a specific set of people, in a specific century, felt over a specific issue, read their popular writing. When we do that, we see mankind has always been just as hopeful, just as flawed, just as hypocritical, just as dreamy, as it is now and was before. 

-W. Alexander Dunford

If you want to know how a specific set of people, in a specific century, felt over a specific issue, read their popular writing.

Please don’t get the wrong idea, for I love early American literature; I worship the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. However, we should read literature, from any time period, with an appreciation for their times, their struggles, their hopes and dreams, and not project onto their works, something they themselves would not say.

Related Post: