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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Identify the storyline shift from America to Europe in The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.

The storyline shift from America to Europe is accomplished through the introduction of Madame Merle and the death of elderly Mr. Touchett. Prior to her uncle’s death, Isabel is an American visiting England. She is still strongly connected to her American friends and fellow visitors. Madame Merle’s influence over the young woman strengthens as Henrietta’s influence wanes. Daniel’s generous legacy enables Isabel to live independently in Europe and Madame Merle becomes her guide.

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Henry James’s novel chronicles the coming-of-age of Isabel Archer, who begins the novel as a naïve, free-spirited young woman. Isabel is an American who, having lost both her parents, goes to England to stay with her aunt and uncle, the Touchetts. Daniel Touchett, originally an American, has been living there for many years; his wife is English but spends much of her time on the Continent.

During the first part of the novel, several other American characters are introduced. Isabel’s friend Henrietta Stackpole, a journalist, arrives for a visit. Henrietta has a strong influence on Isabel, who becomes increasingly uncomfortable with her friend’s rudeness and criticism of the English. The other significant American to arrive is Caspar Goodwood, Isabel’s suitor back in the States. The strain between her and Henrietta intensifies as the friend intrudes in her romantic relationships, trying to persuade her to marry Caspar. Another indicator of Isabel’s growing attachment to Europe is the role of Lord Warburton, an English suitor. Isabel turns down both proposals.

Isabel also becomes friendly with her cousin Ralph, Daniel Touchett’s son. Ralph, out of fondness for her and admiration for her independent spirit, persuades his father to leave Isabel half his inheritance. As the father’s health worsens, the character of Madame Merle is introduced. She is a sophisticated, independent European woman, whom Isabel greatly admires. Soon after they become friends, Daniel dies. With her new legacy, Isabel is free not just to travel briefly but actually to reside in Europe. Madame Merle replaces Henrietta as the influential female friend on whom Isabel depends, signifying the change in her identification from American to European.

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