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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Student Question

Justify the title of the story The Portrait of a Lady.

Quick answer:

The title The Portrait of a Lady is justified as the novel centers on Isabel Archer's life and choices, highlighting the tension between individual independence and societal expectations. The story meticulously explores her character, from her initial free-spirited nature to the complexities of her unhappy marriage. Henry James uses this narrative to delve into psychological and societal themes, making Isabel's character the focal point.

Expert Answers

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This book, which has to be one of my favourite books, centres on the life of Isabel Archer and the choices that she makes. In particular, it focuses on the tension between an individual and society. It is clear from the very first that Isabel is an independent spirit - her desire to explore the world and her refusal of Lord Warburton's offer of marriage make it clear that she is a stubborn, free-thinking lady.

However, when she marries Gilbert Osmond and enters an unhappy marriage, she must choose between satisfying her independence and feeling this marriage or meeting the demands of society by staying with her husband.

The novel bears the title A Portrait of a Lady because that is precisely what it is. The main purpose of the novel is to present, explain and explore her character and the decisions she makes. James is famous for his combination of psychology with literature and in this novel he uses his powers to present a plausible character to explore the tension between an individual and society.

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