What are the moral issues Henry James discusses throughout The Portrait of a Lady?

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mlsldy3 | Elementary School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

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How much can one person really own another person? This is a question people have asked for generations. Henry James writes about this in The Portrait of a Lady. This is a moral issue that all of us face as some point in our lives. In the novel, we are thrown into several moral issues.

When Isabel comes to England from America, she is a strong willed and independent woman. She makes it very clear from the beginning that she is determined to stay this way. She loves her freedom and is afraid of losing that to marriage. She turns down two marriage proposals for this reason. We see that Isabel is concerned that she will lose who she is, as a person. When she is left a great fortune, she finally accepts the proposal from Gilbert Osmond, not knowing that this will be what she feared the most. 

Greed, freedom, free will, faith and independence are all moral issues within the novel. When Isabel goes to see Ralph, he notices right away that something is not right. 

"The free, keen girl had become quite another person; what he saw was the fine lady who was supposed to represent something. What did Isabel represent? Ralph asked himself; and he could only answer by saying that she represented Gilbert Osmond."

This one quote tells us that Isabel had lost the freedom she so loved. She was now what she thought she had to be, not who she truly was. Henry James leaves us hanging at the end of the novel. Did Isabel stay with a husband who was cruel and didn't love her, or did she regain her freedom? The moral issues determine how the book should end.

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