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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Topic #1
Discuss the character of Isabel Archer in relation to Henry James’s portrayal of the American in Europe.

I. Thesis Statement: The Portrait of a Lady exemplifies James’s depiction of the innocent American corrupted and damaged by European influences.

II. Henry James: American and European
A. James’s exposure to and experience in Europe
B. Raw American spirit versus refined European sensibility

III. Isabel Archer
A. The Portrait of a Lady
1. Isabel Archer as an innocent American
2. Exposure to European culture, manners, and traditions
3. Corrupting influences of Europe and Europeans
4. American expatriates in Europe: Osmond and Madame Merle
5. Reactions of Isabel, Mrs. Touchett, and Henrietta to the Europeans
B. James’s portrait of the “lady” abroad
1. Isabel’s tragedy and loss of innocence
2. A loveless marriage: Isabel’s fate in Europe

Topic #2
Discuss the role of women in European society. How does Isabel Archer’s independent spirit reflect her Americanism?

I. Thesis Statement: Isabel Archer must suppress her own independence and feminist spirit in order to become a European “lady.”

II. A portrait of an early feminist
A. Isabel Archer’s independent spirit and intelligence
B. Differences with the “typical” European “lady” of the time
C. Independence and outspokenness as an alluring trait
1. Ralph Touchett’s love of Isabel
2. Lord Warburton’s “interesting” woman
3. Caspar Goodwood’s American “lady”
D. Madame Merle as the Europeanized American woman

III. Marriage to Osmond
A. Isabel’s attraction to Osmond
1. Intellectual qualities
2. Artistic qualities
B. Osmond’s dislike of Isabel’s “bad ideas”
1. Why ideas attract Ralph and Warburton
2. Why ideas repel Gilbert Osmond
C. Isabel’s refusal to completely submit to Osmond

IV. Isabel’s fate
A. Surrender to societal conventions and return to Osmond
B. Sacrifice of self for Pansy

Topic #3
Discuss James’s use of “psychological realism” in The Portrait of a Lady.

I. Thesis Statement: In The Portrait of a Lady, James reveals much about his characters, not only through their actions, but also by directly revealing their innermost thoughts and feelings.

II. Isabel Archer’s thoughts and emotions
A. On rejecting Lord Warburton’s and Caspar Goodwood’s proposals
1. Alone in the garden with Caspar’s letter
2. With Warburton at lunch and in the gallery at Gardencourt
B. Feelings for Ralph and the Touchetts
C. Falling in love with Osmond and coldness of marriage
1. Walks in gardens with Osmond
2. Refusal to listen to the advice of others
3. Waiting for Caspar Goodwood after engagement to Osmond
4. Osmond as her husband and relation to Pansy
D. Pansy in the convent and return to Osmond
1. Isabel’s devotion to Pansy
2. Caspar’s kiss in the garden

III. Osmond and Madame Merle
A. Introduction to Osmond
B. Madame Merle’s relationship to Osmond
1. Madame Merle’s scheme
2. Involvement of Isabel
C. Osmond falls in love with Isabel
1. Genuinely attracted to Isabel
2. Discussion of Isabel’s “bad ideas”
D. Osmond’s relationship with Madame Merle
E. Isabel’s admission of her “wretched” marriage to Gilbert Osmond

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Critical Evaluation