Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Rome. Capital of Italy and major center of Western art and culture that provides the novel’s primary setting. Isabel Archer’s initial response to Rome is similar to that expressed by James himself on his first visit there in 1869: “She went about in a repressed ecstasy of contemplation.” Isabel’s state of mind is suggested by her lodgings, the Hôtel de Paris on Via St. Sebastiano, a sunny Roman street lined with trees on one side and a hill covered in greenery on the other. The hotel, a short walk from the Pincian Gardens, is located near the Spanish Steps and the Piazzo de Spagna, a popular gathering place for English tourists during the nineteenth century and the neighborhood in which James himself often stayed. Isabel visits many of the famous Roman sites—the Forum, the Palazzo Doria Pamphili, the gallery of the Capitol with its Hall of the Dying Gladiator, and St. Peter’s Basilica—all suggestive of a historical tradition so deeply entrenched it can become an oppressive force.

After rejecting several offers of marriage because she fears they will interfere with her desire to experience life, Isabel ironically accepts Gilbert Osmond’s proposal. Her marriage transforms her from a passionate, independent woman to an objet d’art, another item in Osmond’s art collection. The change is symbolized by the change in her residence. The darkness of the Palazzo Roccanero is in sharp contrast to the airiness...

(The entire section is 554 words.)

Historical Background

(Novels for Students)

In 1843, the year Henry James was born, the population of the United States was growing, the country’s territory was rapidly expanding, and...

(The entire section is 1025 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In the Preface to the New York Edition of The Portrait of a Lady, James recalls that one of his major challenges was how to endow his...

(The entire section is 1323 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Throughout the novel the various characters and the narrator attempt to trace Isabel's portrait but no one succeeds completely. A fruitful...

(The entire section is 593 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The social observation and the memorable characterizations of The Portrait of a Lady align it with the Victorian novel of manners,...

(The entire section is 236 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Like Daisy Miller, Isabel reflects the emancipated girl of post-Civil-War America, encountering the traditional societies of Europe and...

(The entire section is 59 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

A cinematic adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady (1996) was directed by Jane Campion and featured Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich in...

(The entire section is 25 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Grover, Philip. Henry James and the French Novel: A Study in Inspiration. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1973. Analyzes all of James’s works up to and including The Portrait of a Lady. Tries to show the ways in which James was influenced by Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and the French l’art pour l’art movement. Compares the themes and subjects of French writers with those of James.

Kelley, Cornelia Pulsifer. The Early Development of Henry James. Rev. ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965. Traces the development of the Jamesian novel from Roderick Hudson (1876) through The Portrait of a Lady. Examines French influences on James but also claims that the two novelists who influenced James most significantly were Turgenev and George Eliot, whose influence can be seen best in The Portrait of a Lady.

Kirschke, James J. Henry James and Impressionism. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Press, 1981. Traces impressionist influences on James and claims that impressionism is the key to comprehending the modernist movement in literature and the pictorial arts.

Matthiessen, F. O. Henry James: The Major Phase. New York: Oxford University Press, 1944. Written by one of the foremost critics of American literature, this study examines James’s expatriatism and the paradox that although James had cut himself off from America, his novels deeply searched the American consciousness.

Poirier, Richard. The Comic Sense of Henry James: A Study of the Early Novels. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Claims that all James’s novels prior to The Portrait of a Lady are an apprenticeship for the writing of that work. Traces all the themes and characters of The Portrait of a Lady to earlier works.

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Anderson, Quentin. The American Henry James. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1957.

Auchincloss, Louis....

(The entire section is 147 words.)