illustration of Isabel Archer with a hand fan positioned between two silhouetted profiles

The Portrait of a Lady

by Henry James

Start Free Trial

Student Question

In what ways is The Portrait of a Lady a tragic novel?

Quick answer:

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James can be considered a tragic novel in at least three different ways. First, Isabel Archer unwillingly and unknowingly makes a flawed marriage decision that will affect her life and fortune. Second, Isabel Archer's positive qualities, her passion for life and independent spirit, ironically blur her assessment of those around her. Third it is her own flawed judgement that causes her pain. She could have done it all differently.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James tells the story of Isabel Archer. She is an American young woman with no financial means of her own due to the death of both her parents.

She does, however, have a well-to-do aunt living abroad with her family in England, Mrs. Touchett. The latter takes Isabel under her wing to make connections in England for a "good" marriage, meaning a marriage where Isabel can gain some financial upper hand and live a good life.

Isabel has two great qualities. She is a lover of life and she cherishes her freedom to the point that she actually bypasses two marriage proposals, made by wealthy men. She refuses to marry because she recognizes that she is still young enough to enjoy the opportunities afforded to her, and she wants to experience how it is to live abroad with interesting friends, and mainly traveling and exploring her world.

Isabel even becomes fortunate enough to inherit from Mr. Touchett and her cousin Ralph upon each of their respective, untimely deaths. This leaves Isabel with money and even more power to rule her own life the way she wants.

In comes the tragic aspect of the novel. Like most well-developed characters, Isabel's character has flaws. However, for a piece of work to be considered "tragic" this flaw also needs to be a tragic flaw. This means a character trait that could lead to the demise or sad conclusion of the character.

Isabel's character flaws ironically, and tragically, stem from her greatest qualities; her passion for life and her desire to do things "her way" as an independent woman. Sadly, these two strong emotions prevent Isabel from seeing those who surround her for who they really are.

First, she feels that family friend Madame Merle means well by speaking highly of her friend Gilbert as a potential suitor for Isabel. Furthermore, Gilbert's social persona is that of a somewhat enigmatic, super intellectual, and well-mannered American expat and artist, which undoubtedly piqued Isabel's curiosity.

Unbeknownst to Isabel, Merle and Gilbert were secretly scheming to get Gilbert married to the now-wealthy Isabel for the sake of securing a potentially good marriage for their teenage daughter, Pansy. Both Gilbert and Madame Merle were unsavory characters, but the naïve Isabel was too caught up in her own mindset to recognize these awful qualities.

Ultimately, she does marry Gilbert with disastrous results. More awful still is the fact that her stubbornness and idealistic views of life lead Isabel to feel that it is her duty to stay married to Gilbert, even refusing a potential chance of happiness with Caspar Goodwood.

Essentially, Isabel causes her own tragic, or sad, ending, and it is ironically fueled by the traits of her character that she cherishes the most: her passion and her independent spirit. Had she not abided so staunchly by those traits, she could have done everything differently.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial