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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List of Characters

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Master List of Characters
Mr. Daniel Touchett—A wealthy American banker who now resides in England.

Ralph Touchett—Mr. Touchett’s ailing son.

Lord Warburton—A wealthy English aristocrat and close friend of Ralph Touchett.

Mrs. Lydia Touchett—Mr. Touchett’s wife and Ralph’s mother. She has arrived from America with her niece, Isabel Archer.

Isabel Archer—A young American woman who is visiting England for the first time. She is Mr. and Mrs.
Touchett’s niece, and Ralph’s cousin.

Lilian Ludlow—Isabel’s sister who lives with her husband and children in New York City.

Edmund Ludlow—A New York lawyer, married to Lilian.

Edith Archer—Isabel’s other sister. She lives in the American West with her engineer husband.

Caspar Goodwood—A young American businessman who is in love with Isabel.

Henrietta Stackpole—Isabel’s opinionated friend from America.

Miss Molyneux—Lord Warburton’s sister.

Mildred Molyneux—Warburton’s youngest sister.

Vicar of Lockleigh—Lord Warburton’s brother; a burly ex-wrestler who is now a clergyman.

Bob Bantling—Ralph’s bachelor friend from London.

Madame Serena Merle—A friend of the Touchetts who meets Isabel at Gardencourt.

Edward (Ned) Rosier—A young American, living in Paris, who had been acquainted with Isabel’s family in the United States.

Mr. and Mrs. Luce—An American expatriate couple who are living in Paris.

Gilbert Osmond—An old friend of Madame Merle’s who is living with his daughter in Italy.

Pansy Osmond—Gilbert Osmond’s young daughter.

Sister Catherine—A nun from the convent in Switzerland where Pansy attends school.

Sister Justine—Another nun from the Swiss convent.

Countess Gemini—Gilbert Osmond’s sister.

Mr. Hilary—Daniel Touchett’s attorney.

Characters Discussed

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Isabel Archer

Isabel Archer, the heroine of the novel. An heiress orphaned at an early age, she uses her freedom to go to Europe to be educated in the arts of life lacking in her own country. She draws the interest and adoration of many people, all of whom feel that they can make a contribution to her growth, or at least can use her. Isabel is somewhat unworldly at the time of her marriage to Gilbert Osmond. After three years of resisting the social mold imposed on her by Osmond and his Roman ménage, Isabel faces a dilemma in which her intelligence and honesty vie with her sense of obligation. Sensitive to her own needs as well as to those of others, she is aware of the complicated future she faces.

Gilbert Osmond

Gilbert Osmond, an American expatriate. He finds in Rome an environment suited to his artistic taste and devotes his time and tastes solely to pleasing himself.

Madame Merle

Madame Merle, Isabel’s friend. Madame Merle was formerly Osmond’s mistress and is the mother of his daughter Pansy. A clever, vigorous woman of considerable perspicacity, she promotes Isabel’s marriage to Osmond.

Ralph Touchett

Ralph Touchett, Isabel’s ailing cousin. He appreciates the fine qualities of Isabel’s nature. Distressed by what he considers her disastrous marriage, he sees to it that his own and his father’s estates come to Isabel.

Caspar Goodwood

Caspar Goodwood, Isabel’s faithful American suitor. He has the simplicity and directness of American insight that Isabel is trying to supplement by her European “education.” He does not understand why he fails with Isabel.

Lord Warburton

Lord Warburton, a friend of Ralph Touchett. Like all the other unsuccessful men in Isabel’s life, he deeply admires the young American woman and is distressed by her marriage to Gilbert Osmond.

Henrietta Stackpole

Henrietta Stackpole, an American journalist and a girlhood friend of Isabel. Henrietta is, in her own...

(This entire section contains 519 words.)

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right, an amusing picture of the sensation-seeking, uncritical American intelligence ranging over the length and breadth of Europe. She is eager to “save” Isabel.

Pansy Osmond

Pansy Osmond, the illegitimate daughter of Osmond and Madame Merle. Pansy is unaware of her situation, and she welcomes Isabel as her stepmother; she feels that in Isabel she has an ally, as indeed she has. Determined to endure gracefully what she must, she feels increasingly the strictures of her father’s dictates.

Edward Rosier

Edward Rosier, a suitor for Pansy’s hand. This kindly, pleasant man lacks means sufficient to meet Osmond’s demands.

Countess Gemini

Countess Gemini, Osmond’s sister. She is a woman who has been spoiled and corrupted by her European experience, and she finds Isabel’s behavior almost boring in its simplicity. Several motives prompt her to tell Isabel about Osmond’s first wife and his liaison with Madame Merle. She does not spare Isabel a clear picture of Osmond’s lack of humanity.

Mrs. Touchett

Mrs. Touchett, Isabel’s vigorous and sympathetic aunt. Mrs. Touchett is the one responsible for the invitation that brings Isabel to Europe and the world.

Characters

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Isabel's evolution from a charming and innocent girl with bright aspirations to a woman whose maturity has been achieved at the cost of much unhappiness is traced visually in the three moments she is seen framed in a doorway and dressed in black. The first of these portraits constitutes her entrance into the story since it captures her just as she leaves the Touchett mansion and steps onto the sunlit lawn at Gardencourt. Here she represents the freshness and confidence of youth, the luminosity of freedom and hopefulness, and an idealism which discounts wealth and social position in favor of a constant expansion of the self. These qualities, rendered even more charming by her naiveté, make all the men present on this occasion fall in love with her and wish to help her fulfill her dreams. The second portrait captures her as she appears several years after her unfortunate marriage, when Ned Rosier sees her standing in a gilded doorway at Palazzo Roccanera and thinks she is "the picture of a gracious lady." Ned cannot see that this image conceals Isabel's true feelings — is the gilding that covers the darker reality of her relationship with Osmond and her entrapment in the limitations he imposes on her. The truth of her situation is instead immediately sensed by Ralph who realizes "She wore a mask [and] it completely covered her face . . . The free, keen girl had become quite another person; what he saw was the fine lady who . . . represented Gilbert Osmond."

At the end of the novel, Isabel stands once more in the ample doorway at Gardencourt, having refused Goodwood's suggestion that she flee with him and having decided to return to Rome. No longer the inexperienced girl of the opening nor the confused woman of a short time earlier, she now sees herself as an individual with the capacity for independent action but only partly able to control her destiny. Her more profound vision is reflected in her only apparently paradoxical mixture of tentativeness and determination. "Here . . . she paused. She looked all about her; she listened a little; then she put her hand on the latch. She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path." Neither the reader nor Isabel herself knows exactly what direction her life will take. What is clear, however, is that she has finally made a choice based on a mature sense of the meaning of her experiences and of the responsibilities and limitations of human life.

Isabel's sharply-depicted suitors are each associated with certain image patterns that characterize them as individuals and identify the nature of their relationship to her. Protective but limiting, Goodwood is depicted as a knight whose eyes "seemed to shine through the vizard of a helmet" and as a "quiet harbor enclosed by a brave granite breakwater." Warburton's luminous personality and gentleness of spirit are summed up in the description "a radiance surrounded him like a zone of fine June weather," Osmond's villainy is effectively emphasized by images of imprisonment and blackness, as in Isabel's recollection of how during the early years of their marriage he "deliberately, almost malignantly, had put out the lights, one by one."

Madame Merle's cynical sophistication and manipulative coldness balances Isabel's innocent idealism and warmth. The reader discovers her true nature before Isabel does by giving more heed than the heroine to negative evaluations by characters like Ralph and Henrietta and because Isabel is absent when Merle inadvertently reveals herself. Such revelation occurs in the episode where she exclaims that Isabel must have acted as a "clever creature" to have inherited Daniel Touchett's money and in her remark "I don't pretend to know what people are for ... I only know what I can do with them." Isabel's persisting blindness and her refusal to examine her underlying sensation that her so-called friend lacks "naturalness" if not deep feelings, make it easy for Merle to act in her own interest. Nonetheless, she ultimately arouses a degree of pity because she is aware of her own vileness and because under her indifferent exterior she suffers for having given up her child.

Each of the other women characters is somehow compared to Isabel and represents a different type of Victorian womanhood. Isabel's Aunt Lydia, the fairy godmother who makes it possible for her to explore Europe, offers her a negative model of independence. She is refreshingly frank but she has no deep emotional attachments and leads a life touched by melancholy. Henrietta Stackpole, treated with gentle satire as the earnest reporter vainly attempting to penetrate the "inner life" of the Old World, balances Isabel in her earthy good sense and in having found an active role outside marriage. Pansy Osmond seems to be the embodiment of Victorian docility but instead is a victim of her mother's egotistical abandonment and her father's efforts to suffocate her natural vitality. Her powerlessness finally urges Isabel to rescue her from being forced into a marriage she does not want and perhaps it is for her sake that, among other reasons, Isabel returns to Rome.

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