In this classic novel by Henry James, there is a decided emphasis upon the portrayal of the cultural mores surrounding marriage. Isabel Archer is a beautiful intelligent and respectable woman who is courted by a number of wealthy suitors. Although she can find merit in all of them, she also desires passion and romance in a match, and this leads her to choose a husband to whom she has a strong attraction, Gilbert Osmond (an American ex-patriate like herself). The resulting match turns out to be disastrous for her because her husband is cruel and unfaithful. The novel has been cited as an example of an emerging attitude that encouraged women to marry for reasons other than custom or propriety. Isabel Archer is thus an example of the "New Woman" and the novel demonstrates James' own mixed feelings about this cultural institution.
The spectre of death is most clearly portrayed in Isobel's grief over a child borne during this marriage, who died as an infant. The death of the child early on in the marriage may be seen as an event that affects Isabel's happiness and possibly compromises her ability to feel comfortable and optimistic in her marriage going forward.