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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Places Discussed

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*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. 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. 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

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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...

(This entire section contains 1025 words.)

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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 accounts, adding to the growing legend of the wild and woolly American West.

In 1845, the country elected James K. Polk the eleventh president of the United States. A year later, the U.S. Congress declared war on Mexico after hostilities erupted over territory along the Rio Grande border. The United States would eventually purchase the territory, which is now southern Arizona, in 1853 as part of the Gadsden Purchase. The term Manifest Destiny, a justification for U.S. territorial expansion, popularized in 1845, was used to defend U.S. policy during the war with Mexico and throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century as the United States acquired more territory, including Alaska in 1867.

As the United States was expanding its territory, Americans were in the midst of an intense political debate over the question of slavery, the wrenching issue that separated North from South, and it became one of the primary causes of the Civil War. In 1820, Congress had acted on the slavery question, making it illegal north of the territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. This action became known as the Missouri Compromise. By 1846, the question had erupted again after the Wilmot Proviso, which would have effectively eliminated slavery, was defeated in Congress after being hotly debated by parties on both sides of the issue. Meanwhile, William Lloyd Garrison, a dedicated abolitionist, was fighting for the immediate emancipation of all slaves. In 1850, in response to the growing abolitionist movement, the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, giving southern slave owners the legal right to pursue and capture runaway slaves who had escaped to free states in the North.

Over the next two decades, while James was growing up, living in both Europe and America, expansion into the American frontier would continue, and the slavery question would remain undecided until the end of the war in 1865. During this time, in the United States and around the world, the impact of the Industrial Revolution was profound. For decades, England had benefited economically from technological advances in agricultural and manufacturing equipment. In continental Europe, Belgium and France experienced industrialization during the 1820s and 1830s, and Germany soon followed, all three becoming powerful industrial nations along with other countries that were able to build
and take advantage of a rapidly expanding international railway system.

America, too, was an ideal country for industrialization. In addition to vast amounts of natural resources, the United States had an extensive transportation network, and the country’s industrial growth began to have a significant effect on the economies of many European nations. When the Civil War erupted in the United States in 1861, the impact was felt around the world, threatening the growing influence of the United States internationally. Britain and France had particular interest in the war’s outcome, but other nations were also affected by it. Following the war, however, industrialization grew, and by the early 1900s, the United States would be outproducing even Britain, manufacturing more coal, iron, and cotton.

As the United States continued to expand and develop, Britain, an ancient country distinguished by its rituals, manners, and social traditions, began to enjoy an atmosphere of political tolerance and intellectual freedom. Britain’s rule of law was highly esteemed throughout Europe and the country was economically ahead of its neighbors. In the arts, British novelists such as George Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Kingsley, and Samuel Butler were all making substantial contributions to world literature. Writers in the United States, mindful of the work of their British counterparts, developed literary movements of their own. Important to the Jameses’ household were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, authors whose transcendentalist and social theories promoted communitarian living, progressive education, feminism, and the abolitionist cause. Transcendentalists believed in individualism and the sacredness of both humans and nature.

Having grown up in this unique and stimulating environment, Henry James began to write seriously as a young man, and his output was enormous. His work would be studied and praised for generations, but when The Portrait of a Lady, an early novel, was published, reviews were mixed; critics seemed uncertain how to judge James’s particular form of realism, although all agreed that the novel displayed a masterful use of language. W. C. Brownell, writing for the Atlantic Monthly, noted James’s ability to carry “the method of the essayist into the domain of romance: its light touch, its reliance on suggestiveness, its weakness for indirect statement.…” Horace E. Scudder, also from the Atlantic Monthly, wrote that “Mr. James is at great pains to illustrate his characters by their attitudes, their movements, their by-play, yet we carry away but a slight impression of their external appearance; these are not bodily shapes, for the most part, but embodied spirits.…” A review in Harper’s reported that the novel “fulfills all the technical conditions that are essential for the production of a perfect portrait in oil, save those that are mechanical or manual, and manifests clearly enough how successfully the pen may compete with the pencil in the sphere of pictorial art.” But Margaret Oliphant, reviewer for Blackwood’s, complained that, although the book is “one of the most remarkable specimens of literary skill” she had yet seen, The Portrait of a Lady was “far too long, infinitely ponderous, and pulled out of all proportion by the elaboration of every detail.…”

Undaunted by the critics, James published many works over the next several decades. His writing emerged from the rich atmosphere of the times, and his literary innovations captured the attention of critics and the public during an era of great political and social change in both Europe and the United States.

Literary Techniques

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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 image of "the slim shade of an intelligent but presumptuous girl . . . affronting her destiny" with "the attributes of a big Subject." To accomplish this, he could have surrounded his heroine with a rich social context of characters and events according to the conventions of the realistic social novel as developed by Jane Austen and George Eliot. Or, he could have equipped her with a complex personal consciousness and adopted the metaphoric language of the tradition of the romance as it had been brought to perfection by Nathaniel Hawthorne. He decided to aim for a delicate balance of crucial elements from both traditions, incorporating social history while making the growth of his heroine's consciousness his compositional center. He thuse created a highly innovative work of fiction that begins as a novel of manners with Isabel as the focal point and modulates into a darker drama of her developing consciousness.

Writing about his decision to make Isabel's destiny his primary focal point and source of meaning, in an era when novels were generally multi-plotted, James recalled that his watchword was to "Place the center of the subject in the young woman's own consciousness . . . Stick to that — for the center . . . Place meanwhile in the other scale the lighter weight . . . press least hard . . . on the consciousness of your heroine's satellites, especially the male; make it an interest contributive only to the greater one." As a result, although Isabel is such a fascinating character precisely because she is never fully revealed, every element of the story — the characters, events, settings and symbols, as well as explicit responses to her and overt comparisons with other characters — functions mainly to illuminate her and to clarify the social, psychological and moral aspects of her predicament.

Structurally, the story falls into two parts. In the first, Isabel pursues her illusion of freedom and her quest for knowledge as she moves toward her choice of a husband. In the second, having made her choice, she gradually recognizes that complete freedom is impossible and total knowledge an elusive dream. Important changes in point of view accompany this structural division. In the opening chapters, Isabel and the other characters are seen primarily through the authorial narrator who speaks with omniscience to present and evaluate them in short psychological portraits. The most important of these is the one depicting Isabel in Chapter Six. As the story progresses, the authorial perspective begins to alternate with the observations and ideas of the characters, most notably of Ralph and Isabel whose points of view on particular incidents and characters are sometimes set in revealing opposition. In the second half of the novel, direct commentary by the authorial narrator steadily becomes less frequent in favor of the increasing centrality of Isabel's perceptions. The authorial narrator even withholds certain information, such as the love affair between Merle and Osmond, so that the reader learns about it along with Isabel and in the context of her emotional response.

The process of attributing centrality to Isabel culminates in Chapter Forty-Two when she retraces her experiences before and after her marriage in a long retrospective meditation that represents the turning point in her life. The revolutionary nature of this monologue derives from how it reveals Osmond's character, Isabel's confusion and the quality of their marriage without reporting specific details but through imagery and by tracing the nuances of her thoughts. In it, her motionless revaluation of the past and consequent transformation of her self image move the plot forward as efficiently as a series of external events might have done and constitute a dramatic action as full of suspense as an episode in an adventure story. Aside from its importance in this novel, this crucial chapter is worthy of note because it foreshadows James's growing concern with the life of the imagination in his later works, especially those of his final phase like The Ambassadors (1903), and because it prefigures the emphasis on subjectivity and perspective that was to characterize the modern psychological novel.

Another admirable technique is the use of images and symbols that not only enhance the quality of the narrative but also express meaning and advance plot. As noted, each of the protagonists is associated with certain characterizing images which indicate their personality and suggest the nature of their relationship to Isabel. Other image patterns deepen the reader's understanding of Isabel's fate. She and Ralph both describe her future in images of birds and flying while her feelings toward her suitors emerge as images of entrapment. When Warburton declares his love for her she feels like "some wild creature caught in a vast cage" while Osmond's proposal evokes an ambiguous response she identifies as "the slipping of a fine bolt — backward or forward, she couldn't have said which." Similarly, images of light and dark trace her path toward her destiny, specifically, her movement away from the brightness of Garden-court, to the twilight of her period of courtship in Florence, into the darkness of Palazzo Roccanera in Rome.

Of utmost importance in the texture and meaning of the novel are the architectural metaphors by which different dwellings express different human attitudes and nouses and their inhabitants reflect the stages of Isabel's quest for experience of the world and for self-identity. Her home in Albany, described in a flashback to the day she sat alone in an empty room brooding on her future, symbolizes the limitations of her American background, especially in light of her curiosity about the world and her lively imagination. That Gardencourt represents a perfect blend of nature and civilization is immediately made clear when she first sees it "in a flood of summer light" during the pleasant ritual of tea on the green lawn. Warburton's castle, Lockleigh, suggests confinement in the alien social order of which he is an esteemed member, so she quickly decides it would never be a suitable dwelling-place for her. Unfortunately for her, Isabel's response to Osmond's villa on the outskirts of Florence parallels her mistaken evaluation of the man himself. She overlooks its gloominess and allows herself to be enchanted by the marvelous vista from the back terrace which she instinctively associates with what she imagines to be Osmond's hidden charm. As for Palazzo Roccanera, during her midnight vigil she admits that it is "the house of darkness, the house of numbness, the house of suffocation" and draws an analogy between it and Osmond's mind which is similarly sinister and black. From this perspective, Gardencourt represents a now-distant innocence and sense of possibility and it is to this sacred spot that she retreats to assist Ralph on his deathbed and to seek spiritual restoration.

The overall texture of the narrative is rich and varied, being made up of superbly depicted scenes, dramatic dialogue, authorial commentary, character perspectives on Isabel and her inner analysis, as well as ample imagery, symbolism and metaphor. The authorial narrator speaks in a moderately ironic tone as he describes the characters, indulges in evaluations of their psychology and offers commentary in an artfully constructed yet lucid and crisp style. The dialogue, studded with witty phrases, has a leisurely pace and always reflects the personality of the speakers along with the nature of their relationship at that particular moment. Ralph and Isabel engage in some sparkling conversations which reveal their essential affinities even as they disagree. Osmond's speech exposes his hostility and massive egotism in his sarcasm and his cutting descriptions of others. The imagery contributes to the vivid pictorial quality of the prose while the more elaborate metaphors ensure a slow accretion of meaning. Throughout, as Isabel evolves into a mature woman, her thought processes are reported with an increasing poetic intensity that parallels the deepening of her insight and the broadenTlie Portrait of a Lady ing of her knowledge of the human condition.

Literary Precedents

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The social observation and the memorable characterizations of The Portrait of a Lady align it with the Victorian novel of manners, while its balanced structure and artfully-wrought prose style relate it to the work of the best French Realists. Its experimentation with point of view, which culminates in Isabel's magnificent meditative vigil in Chapter Forty-Two, instead looks forward to the modernist technique of interior monologue subsequently developed by writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Another harbinger of Modernism is the "open ending" which perplexed certain contemporary readers but was firmly defended by James who believed "The whole of anything is never told; you can only take what groups together."

As a character, Isabel Archer takes her place alongside such unforgettable heroines of the nineteenth-century novel as Jane Austen's Emma (1816), Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857), Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1877), and George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch (1872), whose stories similarly turn on the question of a woman's destiny. Philosophically, her experiences can be related to the very American tradition of self-reliance as defined in the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson and as exemplified by Henry David Thoreau in Walden (1854), Walt Whitman in Song of Myself (1855), and Mark Twain in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Finally, Isabel's decision to renounce part of her happiness out of a sense of responsibility toward others and her strong, proud nature link her to Hester Prynne, the great protagonist of The Scarlet Letter (1850) by Nathaniel Hawthorne.


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


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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

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

Auchincloss, Louis. Henry James. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1975.

Bowden, Edwin T. The Themes of Henry James. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956.

Buitenhis, Peter. The Grasping Imagination. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970.

Cargill, Oscar. The Novels of Henry James. New York: Macmillan, 1961.

Edel, Leon. Henry James. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1960.

James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. (An Authoritative Text with Reviews and Criticism, Edited by
Robert D. Bamberg). New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975.

Kettle, Arnold. An Introduction to the English Novel. London: Hutchinson’s University Library, 1953.

Krook, Dorothea. The Ordeal of Consciousness in Henry James. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1962.

Mazzella, Anthony J. “The New Isabel.” In The Portrait of a Lady (An Authoritative Text with Reviews and Criticism, Edited by Robert D. Bamberg). New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975.




Critical Essays