illustration of Isabel Archer with a hand fan positioned between two silhouetted profiles

The Portrait of a Lady

by Henry James

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Comment on the technique adopted by Henry James in The Portrait of a Lady.

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This is an awesome novel and I am pleased to see that you are studying it in class. Of course, Henry James is a master novelist, and uses many different techniques as part of his style. However, one element that stands out in this novel is the way that he uses ellipses, or the skipping over of elements of the plot that are actually key to the narrative. One key example of this is Isabel's wedding to Gilbert Osmond. Notice how the marriage is completely ommitted between chapters 35 and 36, and we only hear about the fact of Isabel's marriage to Gilber Osmond as if it were an incidental event through the mouths of Mr. Rosier and Madame Merle. Interestingly, this technique of deliberate ommission is used to highlight when Isabel selects social mores over her independent character. This not only is featured to avoid her wedding, but also her acceptance of Gilbert's proposal and her final cataclysmic decision to return to Rome at the end of the novel. It is almost as if during these moments that we are losing the true independent nature of Isabel Archer as she chooses to be with Gilbert Osmond. In a very real sense, we lose sight of her as she is dominated by her husband and the expectations that society places on her.

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