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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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1269

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...

(This entire section contains 1269 words.)

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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 occurs in the novel occurs in or near a series of houses, each of which relates significantly to Isabel or to other characters. The action begins at Gardencourt, the tudor English country house of Daniel Touchett that Isabel finds more beautiful than anything she has ever seen. The charm of the house is enhanced by its age and natural setting beside the Thames above London. It contrasts greatly with the “old house at Albany, a large, square, double house” belonging to her grandmother, which Isabel in her childhood had found romantic and in which she had indulged in dreams stimulated by her reading.

Mrs. Touchett’s taking Isabel from the Albany house to Gardencourt is a first step in her plan to “introduce her to the world.” When Isabel visits Lockleigh, Lord Warburton’s home, she sees it from the gardens as resembling “a castle in a legend,” though inside it has been modernized. She does not view it as a home for herself, or its titled owner as her husband, despite the many advantages of both. The front of Osmond’s house in Florence is “imposing” but of “a somewhat uncommunicative character,” a “mask.” It symbolizes Osmond, behind whose mask Isabel does not see until after she is married to him. The last of the houses in The Portrait of a Lady is the Palazzo Roccanera, the Roman home of the Osmonds, which James first describes as “a kind of domestic fortress . . . which smelt of historic deeds, of crime and craft and violence.” When Isabel later broods over it during her night-long meditation in chapter 42, it is “the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation.”

Isabel is first seen at Gardencourt on her visit with Mrs. Touchett, and it is here that she turns down the first of three proposals of marriage. It is fitting that she should be last seen here with each of the three men who have loved her. Asserting the independence on which she has so long prided herself, she has defied her imperious husband by going to England to see the dying Ralph, whose last words tell her that if she is now hated by Osmond, she has been adored by her cousin. In a brief conversation with Lord Warburton after Ralph’s death, Isabel turns down an invitation to visit him and his sisters at Lockleigh. Shortly afterward, a scene from six years earlier is reversed: Then she had sat on a rustic bench at Gardencourt and looked up from reading Goodwood’s letter (in which he writes that he will come to England and propose to her) to see and hear Warburton preparing to propose. Now Goodwood surprises her by appearing just after she has dismissed Warburton.

There follows the one sexually passionate scene in the novel. In it Isabel has “an immense desire to appear to resist” the force of Goodwood’s argument that she should leave Osmond and turn to him. She pleads with streaming tears, “As you love me, as you pity me, leave me alone!” Defying her plea, Goodwood kisses her, but he possesses her for a moment only. Immediately after, she flees into the house and then to Rome, as Goodwood learns in the brief scene in London with Henrietta Stackpole that closes the novel. James leaves the reader to conclude that Isabel’s love for Pansy Osmond has principally determined her decision to continue enduring a marriage that she had freely—though so ignorantly and foolishly—chosen.


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