Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Rome. Capital of Italy and major center of Western art and culture that provides the novel’s primary setting. Isabel Archer’s initial response to Rome is similar to that expressed by James himself on his first visit there in 1869: “She went about in a repressed ecstasy of contemplation.” Isabel’s state of mind is suggested by her lodgings, the Hôtel de Paris on Via St. Sebastiano, a sunny Roman street lined with trees on one side and a hill covered in greenery on the other. The hotel, a short walk from the Pincian Gardens, is located near the Spanish Steps and the Piazzo de Spagna, a popular gathering place for English tourists during the nineteenth century and the neighborhood in which James himself often stayed. Isabel visits many of the famous Roman sites—the Forum, the Palazzo Doria Pamphili, the gallery of the Capitol with its Hall of the Dying Gladiator, and St. Peter’s Basilica—all suggestive of a historical tradition so deeply entrenched it can become an oppressive force.
After rejecting several offers of marriage because she fears they will interfere with her desire to experience life, Isabel ironically accepts Gilbert Osmond’s proposal. Her marriage transforms her from a passionate, independent woman to an objet d’art, another item in Osmond’s art collection. The change is symbolized by the change in her residence. The darkness of the Palazzo Roccanero is in sharp contrast to the airiness...
(The entire section is 554 words.)
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In 1843, the year Henry James was born, the population of the United States was growing, the country’s territory was rapidly expanding, and Americans were claiming a more prominent position in world affairs. John Tyler was president, having succeeded President Harrison, who died after only a month in office, in 1841. Adventurous American and European settlers were heading into the western regions of the United States in ever-increasing numbers along the Oregon Trail, and reports of their exploits became the stuff of dime novels and exaggerated newspaper accounts, adding to the growing legend of the wild and woolly American West.
In 1845, the country elected James K. Polk the eleventh president of the United States. A year later, the U.S. Congress declared war on Mexico after hostilities erupted over territory along the Rio Grande border. The United States would eventually purchase the territory, which is now southern Arizona, in 1853 as part of the Gadsden Purchase. The term Manifest Destiny, a justification for U.S. territorial expansion, popularized in 1845, was used to defend U.S. policy during the war with Mexico and throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century as the United States acquired more territory, including Alaska in 1867.
As the United States was expanding its territory, Americans were in the midst of an intense political debate over the question of slavery, the wrenching issue that separated North from South, and it...
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Chapters 1-5 Questions and Answers
1. What are Ralph and Warburton discussing in the garden?
2. How does Ralph’s appearance differ from Warburton’s?
3. How does Warburton describe Isabel after he meets her?
4. How did Isabel’s father “squander” his fortune?
5. Where does Mrs. Touchett live most of the time?
6. Why did Mrs. Touchett travel to America?
7. How does Edmund Ludlow describe Isabel?
8. What city is Caspar Goodwood from?
9. Where in the United States did Daniel Touchett live before he moved to England?
10. According to Mrs. Touchett, what are American girls “ridiculously mistaken” about?
1. Ralph and Warburton are discussing their mutual problem of being young, bored, and wealthy.
2. Warburton is a handsome, well-dressed man, while Ralph is homely and ungainly.
3. Warburton calls Isabel an “interesting woman.”
4. Mr. Archer spent all his money on gambling and socializing in America and Europe.
5. She lives in a villa in Florence.
6. Mrs. Touchett wanted to look after her investments in America and visit her nieces.
7. Edmund says she is “written in a foreign tongue” and claims he “can’t make her out.”
8. Caspar is from Boston, although he travels frequently to New York on business.
9. He lived in...
(The entire section is 218 words.)
Chapters 6-10 Questions and Answers
1. How did Isabel distinguish herself when she was growing up?
2. What is Isabel’s “chief dread” concerning her personal development?
3. According to Ralph, what kind of “specimen” is Lord Warburton?
4. Is Lord Warburton as “easily charmed” as Isabel thinks?
5. According to Ralph, why is Lord Warburton in such a “muddle” about himself?
6. To what person does Daniel Touchett privately compare Isabel?
7. What is the title of Henrietta’s article about the Touchetts?
8. Why is Henrietta so determined to learn more about English society?
9. What does Ralph say when Henrietta confronts him about his lack of an occupation?
10. What does Isabel think of the Misses Molyneux?
1. Isabel’s quick mind and active imagination impressed everyone she met when she was growing up in America.
2. She dreads appearing narrow-minded.
3. Ralph tells Isabel that Warburton is a perfect specimen “of an English gentleman.”
4. Warburton says that, although he is not easily charmed, he is charmed by Miss Archer.
5. He is greatly concerned about the injustice and inequality in the world and is confused about his own position of wealth and power.
6. He compares her to Mrs. Touchett, when she was younger.
7. The title of the article is...
(The entire section is 249 words.)
Chapters 11-15 Questions and Answers
1. What is Mrs. Touchett’s opinion of American women?
2. When did Caspar last see Isabel?
3. Prior to proposing to her, how many hours has Lord Warburton spent with Isabel?
4. Why does Henrietta want Isabel to see Caspar Goodwood?
5. What is the “big bribe” Isabel refuses?
6. To what Shakespearean character does Ralph compare himself?
7. Besides Gardencourt, does Daniel Touchett, the wealthy American, own other property in Europe?
8. Do Isabel and Henrietta stay with Ralph while visiting London?
9. According to Warburton, who wears the “Silver Cross”?
10. Does Isabel admire her friend Henrietta?
1. She says they are the “slaves of slaves.”
2. Caspar saw Isabel three months ago in Albany.
3. Warburton calculates he has spent 26 hours with her.
4. Henrietta believes Isabel is changing and becoming too Europeanized; she thinks her friend should reconsider her relationship with Caspar, her American suitor.
5. The “big bribe” is what Isabel calls Lord Warburton’s marriage proposal.
6. Ralph says, “I’m only Caliban; I’m not Prospero,” referring to two characters from The Tempest.
7. Daniel Touchett owns Gardencourt, his grand country estate, as well as a mansion in London. Mrs. Touchett owns a villa...
(The entire section is 237 words.)
Chapters 16-20 Questions and Answers
1. What does Caspar say he would like Isabel to teach him?
2. Why is Isabel afraid of Caspar “watching” her?
3. How does the independent, adventurous Isabel describe her “idea of happiness”?
4. To what professional “title” does Henrietta aspire?
5. Where was Madame Merle born?
6. Who is Mr. Hilary?
7. Before Ralph talks to him about his will, how much money does Daniel Touchett plan to leave Isabel?
8. What is Madame Merle’s “great talent”?
9. Does Mr. Luce like the new French government?
10. Where was Ned Rosier raised?
1. Caspar wishes Isabel could teach him how to live alone. Unfortunately, Caspar can’t imagine living without Isabel.
2. She fears his presence will interfere with her “personal independence.”
3. Isabel tells Henrietta that her “idea of happiness” is a “swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can’t see.”
4. She wants to be the “Queen of American Journalism.”
5. Madame Merle was born in Brooklyn, New York.
6. He is Daniel Touchett’s attorney.
7. Daniel Touchett was going to leave Isabel £5,000—a comfortable sum to help her get started in life, but not enough to cause her problems.
8. Madame Merle’s “great talent” is...
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Chapters 21-25 Questions and Answers
1. Why do Isabel and Mrs. Touchett travel to San Remo?
2. What does Pansy think of Madame Merle?
3. What does Osmond say is his “best” fault?
4. Where does Mrs. Touchett live in Florence?
5. Where did Osmond live before he moved to Florence?
6. Does Ralph think Madame Merle is “worldly”?
7. What does Countess Gemini look like?
8. According to Osmond, what is a woman’s “natural mission”?
9. What is Osmond’s life “plan” that he decided on years ago?
10. What do Madame Merle and the Countess teach Pansy to do?
1. They go to San Remo to visit Ralph who is staying there, hoping the warmer climate will improve his failing health.
2. Although Pansy never openly expresses an opinion of Osmond’s old friend, Madame Merle believes that Pansy doesn’t like her.
3. According to Osmond, his “best” fault is his indolence. He apparently enjoys his life of tasteful leisure, even though he is barely able to afford it.
4. Mrs. Touchett lives in an elegant villa known as the Palazzo Crescentini.
5. Osmond originally lived in Rome, and he has been living in Europe for many years.
6. Madame Merle is not just “worldly,” according to Ralph, she is “the great round world itself”!
7. She looks like a “tropical bird”...
(The entire section is 267 words.)
Chapters 26-30 Questions and Answers
1. Why is Bob Bantling interested in Henrietta?
2. How does Mrs. Touchett feel about Isabel going to Rome without a chaperone?
3. What is Isabel doing when she encounters Lord Warburton in Rome?
4. What parts of the Middle East did Lord Warburton visit?
5. To what American building does Henrietta compare “Michael Angel’s dome” while touring St. Peter’s?
6. How does Isabel describe Lord Warburton’s “character” to Osmond?
7. What is the title of the sonnet Osmond writes and shows to Isabel?
8. Where does Isabel plan to travel in Italy with her aunt?
9. What are Pansy’s greatest talents and skills?
10. What does Pansy like best about Madame Merle?
1. He thinks Henrietta has a “wonderful head on her shoulders” and he enjoys being with a woman who is not overly concerned with gossip and other people’s opinions of her independence.
2. She doesn’t approve, but she is resigned to the fact once Isabel decides to go.
3. She is resting, sitting on a “prostrate column near the foundations of the Capitol” by the Roman Forum.
4. He traveled in Turkey, Asia Minor, and Greece.
5. She compares it to the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. and declares the Italian dome suffers by comparison.
6. Isabel says Lord Warburton is...
(The entire section is 272 words.)
Chapters 31-35 Questions and Answers
1. What countries does Isabel visit with Madame Merle?
2. How does Isabel describe Osmond to Caspar?
3. What countries do Isabel and Lily visit together?
4. How does Isabel feel after her confrontation with Caspar?
5. Why is Mrs. Touchett angry at Madame Merle?
6. Why is Ralph “shocked and humiliated” by Isabel’s engagement?
7. Why does Ralph think Isabel is in “trouble”?
8. How does Osmond feel about Isabel’s inheritance?
9. What does Pansy say when Osmond tells her about his engagement to Isabel?
10. Does Countess Gemini think Isabel will like her husband, the Count?
1. They spent three months in Greece, Turkey, and Egypt.
2. She says he is a “very honourable man” who isn’t rich and is “not known for anything in particular.”
3. They meet in France and spend a month in Paris before traveling to Switzerland and then to England, where Isabel sees Lily and her family off as the Ludlows return to America.
4. Although she felt it was her duty to inform Caspar of her marriage plans, she dreaded the thought of seeing him again. After he leaves, Isabel is very upset and bursts into tears.
5. Mrs. Touchett believes that Madame Merle brought Isabel and Osmond together, and manipulated Isabel into accepting Osmond’s proposal.
(The entire section is 315 words.)
Chapters 36-40 Questions and Answers
1. Where in Switzerland did Ned meet Pansy?
2. How much money does Ned say he is worth?
3. What is Osmond’s opinion of Ned? How does Osmond describe Pansy’s suitor?
4. How have the Osmonds established themselves in their wealthy social circle?
5. During their friendly political debates, what name does Ralph call Lord Warburton?
6. If Pansy is not allowed to marry Ned, what does she tell him she will do?
7. Where did the Osmonds move to after their marriage?
8. How has Osmond’s attitude toward Madame Merle changed?
9. Why does Isabel think Lord Warburton and Pansy would be a good match for each other?
10. How did Madame Merle learn that Lord Warburton had once proposed to Isabel?
1. They met at a resort in St. Moritz.
2. He says he has a “comfortable little fortune” of 40,000 francs.
3. Osmond thinks Ned is entirely unsuitable for his daughter. While discussing Ned, he refers to him as a “donkey.”
4. The Osmonds attend parties and entertain on a regular basis. Every Thursday evening they host a small party for a select group of friends and acquaintances.
5. Ralph calls him the “King of the Goths.”
6. Pansy says she will always obey her father, but if she can’t marry Rosier, then she will marry no one.
(The entire section is 264 words.)
Chapters 41-45 Questions and Answers
1. What does Pansy enjoy talking to Lord Warburton about?
2. According to Osmond, what does Pansy have to do to become Lady Warburton?
3. How does Isabel experience the suffering her marriage has brought her
4. What is Gilbert Osmond’s opinion of himself?
5. Does Isabel think that Osmond still loves her?
6. How does Osmond describe Isabel’s independent opinions?
7. According to Lord Warburton, why didn’t he send his letter to Osmond?
8. How old is Lord Warburton and how old is Pansy?
9. Does Countess Gemini remember who Henrietta is?
10. How does Pansy really feel about Ned Rosier?
1. “In spite of her simplicity,” Pansy is glad to discuss the state of Italy, the condition of the peasantry, taxes, and Roman society with Lord Warburton.
2. Osmond says, “My daughter has only to sit perfectly quiet to become Lady Warburton.”
3. Her suffering is described as “an active condition.” It was a “passion of thought, of speculation, of response to every pressure.”
4. According to Isabel, he thinks he is “better than any one else.”
5. No, Isabel now believes that her husband hates her.
6. He says her sentiments are worthy of a radical newspaper or a Unitarian preacher.
7. Warburton tells Isabel that he wasn’t...
(The entire section is 260 words.)
Chapters 46-50 Questions and Answers
1. Why does Lord Warburton think Ralph should not travel to England with him?
2. How does Lord Warburton feel about Pansy when he decides to return to England?
3. According to Henrietta, what is Isabel too “proud” to do?
4. What is Osmond’s opinion of Ralph? Is he concerned about Ralph’s illness?
5. Henrietta reminds Osmond of what object?
6. How does Osmond get along with Caspar Goodwood?
7. When does Ralph decide to return to England?
8. If Isabel remains married to Osmond, what does Henrietta think will happen to her?
9. What kind of magazine articles does Henrietta send Caspar Goodwood?
10. What does Osmond say Ned has made him believe in for the first time?
1. Warburton believes Ralph should wait for warmer weather before he travels, otherwise the cold, combined with the rigors of the journey, could be quite detrimental to his health.
2. Warburton never had any great feelings for Pansy. He is fond of Osmond’s daughter and when he leaves, he wishes her happiness for the future.
3. She says Isabel is too proud to admit she made a mistake when she married Osmond.
4. Osmond thinks Ralph is a “conceited ass.” He doesn’t display any concern over Ralph’s deteriorating physical condition.
5. Osmond says Henrietta reminds him of a “new...
(The entire section is 286 words.)
Chapters 51-55 Questions and Answers
1. Does Osmond consider himself to be an honorable man?
2. When did Osmond’s first wife die and why do most people believe she was Pansy’s mother?
3. When does Isabel finally decide to visit Ralph, against Osmond’s wishes?
4. How does Pansy behave in the convent?
5. Who meets Isabel at the train station in London?
6. Why is Isabel surprised to learn that Henrietta will be moving to London?
7. How is Isabel greeted when she arrives at Gardencourt?
8. What message does Mrs. Touchett send to Sir Matthew Hope, the celebrated physician?
9. How does Caspar describe Isabel and Osmond?
10. As Ralph nears the end of his life, how does Henrietta feel about him?
1. In spite of his heartless attitudes and selfish actions, Osmond tells Isabel “What I value most in life is the honour of a thing!”
2. Because Osmond’s wife died shortly after Madame Merle gave birth to Pansy, Osmond was able to lie and pretend his wife was Pansy’s real mother.
3. Isabel decides to go to England after Countess Gemini tells her that Madame Merle is Pansy’s mother.
4. Pansy is tearful and subdued, although she tries to remain cheerful. She wears a “little black dress” and is confined to the upstairs rooms of the convent.
5. Henrietta and Mr. Bantling meet her at the...
(The entire section is 344 words.)
In the Preface to the New York Edition of The Portrait of a Lady, James recalls that one of his major challenges was how to endow his image of "the slim shade of an intelligent but presumptuous girl . . . affronting her destiny" with "the attributes of a big Subject." To accomplish this, he could have surrounded his heroine with a rich social context of characters and events according to the conventions of the realistic social novel as developed by Jane Austen and George Eliot. Or, he could have equipped her with a complex personal consciousness and adopted the metaphoric language of the tradition of the romance as it had been brought to perfection by Nathaniel Hawthorne. He decided to aim for a delicate balance of crucial elements from both traditions, incorporating social history while making the growth of his heroine's consciousness his compositional center. He thuse created a highly innovative work of fiction that begins as a novel of manners with Isabel as the focal point and modulates into a darker drama of her developing consciousness.
Writing about his decision to make Isabel's destiny his primary focal point and source of meaning, in an era when novels were generally multi-plotted, James recalled that his watchword was to "Place the center of the subject in the young woman's own consciousness . . . Stick to that — for the center . . . Place meanwhile in the other scale the lighter weight . . . press least hard . . . on the...
(The entire section is 1323 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
Throughout the novel the various characters and the narrator attempt to trace Isabel's portrait but no one succeeds completely. A fruitful topic for discussion would be what motivates the desire to "fix" her in a static depiction and why it is so difficult to do so. Isabel herself makes a strong effort to escape final definition by others since her youth, optimism and imagination make her desire constant change and growth. Inevitably, however, her dream of freedom and her extreme individualism come up against the inherent limitations of life in the human community. Groups may wish to examine the many aspects of James's development of the theme of freedom vs. necessity. In addition, it would be interesting to consider to what extent the vision of self, society and others that emerges in this novel is relevant in the contemporary world. Also inviting serious discussion is the theme of belated knowledge and self-awareness, especially on the part of characters like Isabel and Ralph who pride themselves on their supposed ability to face life directly. Examination of their errors could lead to speculation about the tragic quality of James's view of human nature and about the difficult choices we all have to make in determining what opportunities are true occasions for growth and which conceal hidden dangers. James refused to give his novel a happy ending or even to imply that Isabel's decision to return to Rome would ultimately bring her serenity and happiness. Discussion...
(The entire section is 593 words.)
The social observation and the memorable characterizations of The Portrait of a Lady align it with the Victorian novel of manners, while its balanced structure and artfully-wrought prose style relate it to the work of the best French Realists. Its experimentation with point of view, which culminates in Isabel's magnificent meditative vigil in Chapter Forty-Two, instead looks forward to the modernist technique of interior monologue subsequently developed by writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Another harbinger of Modernism is the "open ending" which perplexed certain contemporary readers but was firmly defended by James who believed "The whole of anything is never told; you can only take what groups together."
As a character, Isabel Archer takes her place alongside such unforgettable heroines of the nineteenth-century novel as Jane Austen's Emma (1816), Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857), Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1877), and George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch (1872), whose stories similarly turn on the question of a woman's destiny. Philosophically, her experiences can be related to the very American tradition of self-reliance as defined in the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson and as exemplified by Henry David Thoreau in Walden (1854), Walt Whitman in Song of Myself (1855), and Mark Twain in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Finally, Isabel's decision to renounce part of her...
(The entire section is 236 words.)
Like Daisy Miller, Isabel reflects the emancipated girl of post-Civil-War America, encountering the traditional societies of Europe and surprising them with her air of liberty. In terms of narration, the novel anticipates James's further experiments with point of view in his final phase, in particular his use of Lambert Strether as his sole "center of consciousness" in The Ambassadors.
(The entire section is 59 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Grover, Philip. Henry James and the French Novel: A Study in Inspiration. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1973. Analyzes all of James’s works up to and including The Portrait of a Lady. Tries to show the ways in which James was influenced by Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and the French l’art pour l’art movement. Compares the themes and subjects of French writers with those of James.
Kelley, Cornelia Pulsifer. The Early Development of Henry James. Rev. ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965. Traces the development of the Jamesian novel from Roderick Hudson (1876) through The Portrait of a Lady. Examines French influences on James but also claims that the two novelists who influenced James most significantly were Turgenev and George Eliot, whose influence can be seen best in The Portrait of a Lady.
Kirschke, James J. Henry James and Impressionism. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Press, 1981. Traces impressionist influences on James and claims that impressionism is the key to comprehending the modernist movement in literature and the pictorial arts.
Matthiessen, F. O. Henry James: The Major Phase. New York: Oxford University Press, 1944. Written by one of the foremost critics of American literature, this study examines James’s expatriatism and...
(The entire section is 275 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Anderson, Quentin. The American Henry James. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1957.
Auchincloss, Louis. Henry James. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1975.
Bowden, Edwin T. The Themes of Henry James. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956.
Buitenhis, Peter. The Grasping Imagination. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970.
Cargill, Oscar. The Novels of Henry James. New York: Macmillan, 1961.
Edel, Leon. Henry James. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1960.
James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. (An Authoritative Text with Reviews and Criticism, Edited by
Robert D. Bamberg). New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975.
Kettle, Arnold. An Introduction to the English Novel. London: Hutchinson’s University Library, 1953.
Krook, Dorothea. The Ordeal of Consciousness in Henry James. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1962.
Mazzella, Anthony J. “The New Isabel.” In The Portrait of a Lady (An Authoritative Text with Reviews and Criticism, Edited by Robert D. Bamberg). New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975.
(The entire section is 147 words.)