The Portrait of a Lady Questions and Answers
by Henry James

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Critically analyse or examine the character of Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady.

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Isabel Archer is, of course, the lady of the novel's title. Isabel is presented as a young American woman from Albany who travels to Europe with her aunt, Mrs. Touchett. What happens to her in Europe in terms of being proposed to by an English Lord, inheriting a fortune, and then is victim of a plot to marry her to the villainous Gilbert Osbond, force her at every stage to face her own internal conflict of having to choose between her desire for independence and being able to do what she wants and then commitment to social norms and values.

The novel focuses on this character and the internal conflict that goes on within her as she faces these various situations and circumstances. The ending, when she chooses to acknowledge the importance of social conventions by returning to her loveless marriage rather than leaving him for Caspar Goodwood, shows how the conflict is reconciled, but has been debated endlessly, as the reconciliation seems to be more tragic than uplifting and we feel immense pity as Isabel gives up her opportunity for happiness and returns to a marriage that has brought her only sadness and pain.

 

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