The Portrait of a Lady, usually regarded as the major achievement of Henry James’s early period of fiction writing, is also recognized to be one of literature’s great novels. In it, James shows that he has learned well from two European masters of the novel. Ivan Turgenev taught him how to use a single character who shapes the work and is seen throughout in relationship to the other characters, and from George Eliot he had learned the importance of a tight structure and a form that develops logically out of the given materials. He advances in The Portrait of a Lady beyond Eliot in minimizing his own authorial comments and analysis and permitting his heroine to be seen through her own tardily awakening self-realization, as well as through the consciousness of the men and women who are closest to her. Thus his “portrait” of a lady is one that grows slowly, stroke by stroke, with each new touch bringing out highlights and shadows until at the end of the novel Isabel Archer stands revealed as a woman whose experiences of excitement, joy, pain, and knowledge have given her an enduring beauty and dignity.
Isabel is one of James’s finest creations and one of the most memorable women in the history of the novel. A number of sources have been suggested for her. She may have been partly drawn from James’s cousin, Mary “Minny” Temple, whom he was later to immortalize as Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove (1902). Isabel has also been compared to two of Eliot’s heroines, Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch (1871-1872) and Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda (1876); to Diana Belfield in an early romantic tale by James entitled “Longstaff’s Marriage”; to Bathsheba Everdene in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1874); and even to James himself, some of whose early experiences closely parallel those of Isabel.
While James may have drawn from both real and fictional people in portraying Isabel, she possesses her own identity, having grown, as James later wrote in his preface to the novel, from his “conception of a certain young woman affronting her destiny.” He visualized her as “an intelligent but presumptuous girl” who was nevertheless “complex” and who would be offered a series of opportunities for free choice in confronting that destiny. Because of her presumption in believing that she knew more about herself and the world than she actually did, Isabel made mistakes, including the tragic error of misjudging Gilbert Osmond’s nature. Her intelligence, however, though insufficient to save her from suffering, enabled her to achieve a moral triumph in the end.
Of the four men in Isabel’s life, three love her and one uses her innocence to gain for himself what he would not otherwise have had. She refuses to marry Lord Warburton because, though he offers her a great fortune, a title, an entry into English society, and an agreeable and entertaining personality, she believes she can do better. She turns down the equally wealthy Caspar Goodwood because she finds him stiff and is frightened by his aggressiveness. Her cousin, Ralph Touchett, does not propose because he does not wish her to be tied to a man who daily faces death. She does not even suspect the extent of his love and adoration until she learns of it just as death takes him from her, which almost overwhelms her. She accepts Osmond because she is deceived by his calculated charm and because she believes that he deserves what she can offer him: a fortune that will make it possible for him to live in idleness but surrounded by the objects of the culture she believes he represents, and a mother’s love and care for his supposedly motherless daughter. Half of the novel is given over to Isabel’s living with, adjusting to, and finally triumphing over that disastrous choice.
In his preface, James uses an architectural figure to describe The Portrait of a Lady . He says the “large building” of the novel “came to be a square and spacious house.” Much of what...
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