The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Rome

*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 of the Hôtel de Paris.

Palazzo Roccanero

Palazzo Roccanero. Isabel’s home in Rome after her marriage to Osmond. James modeled Roccanero after Rome’s Palazzo Mattei, which was built on the site of the ancient Circus Flaminius in the early seventeenth century. Situated on one of the many “tortuous, tragic streets of Rome,” Roccanero is a “dark and massive structure.” Even the “damp” interior courtyard receives very little direct sunlight. The palazzo contains both “frescoes by Caravaggio” and “mutilated statues and dusty urns,” indicating both the positive and negative aspects of tradition and culture. Representing Osmond’s oppressive hold over Isabel, the palazzo, a “domestic fortress,” seems to imprison her.

Gardencourt

Gardencourt. English country estate by the River Thames, near London, that is the residence of Isabel’s cousin, Ralph Touchett. Gardencourt appeals to Isabel’s imagination that has been stimulated by her reading and daydreaming in her grandmother’s house in Albany. As the word “garden” implies, the setting is idyllic, but Isabel soon encounters a snake in the garden in the personage of Madame Merle, Osmond’s former mistress.

After leaving England, Isabel travels with Mrs. Touchett to Paris, then to Florence, where Madame Merle introduces her to Gilbert Osmond, whose elegance and sophisticated taste impress her, and finally Rome. At the end of the novel, she returns to Gardencourt, against Osmond’s objection, to tend to the dying Ralph. Gardencourt thus frames the novel, highlighting the change in Isabel; no longer innocent and naïve, she has acquired the wisdom that comes from disappointment and suffering.

*Albany

*Albany. Capital of New York State that is Isabel’s hometown, a prosaic place suggesting that Isabel will be unprepared for the sophistication of Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond. Upon the death of her father, Isabel leaves Albany, embarking on a tour of Europe with her aunt, Mrs. Touchett.

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 Americans were claiming a more prominent position in world affairs. John Tyler was president, having succeeded President Harrison, who died after only a month in office, in 1841. Adventurous American and European settlers were heading into the western regions of the United States in ever-increasing numbers along the Oregon Trail, and reports of their exploits became the stuff of dime novels and exaggerated newspaper...

(The entire section is 3,644 words.)