The Portrait of a Lady is James’s first unarguably major work. Technically his third novel (though the early Watch and Ward, published in 1871, is by general agreement unworthy of mention), it represents a quantum leap in sophistication and moral complexity over Roderick Hudson and The American.
Thematically continuous with Daisy Miller in that it treats the perils of an innocent American woman abroad, the novel probes the psychology of its heroine, Isabel Archer, to infinitely greater depths than does the earlier novella. The reader first encounters Isabel Archer at the English country house of the Touchetts. Isabel’s aunt, Lydia Touchett, has brought her from the United States after the death of Isabel’s father. Pursued by the feckless British aristocrat Lord Warburton and the crude American Caspar Goodwood, Isabel is also admired by her invalid cousin, Ralph Touchett, who gives her an enormous bequest from his father’s estate.
While visiting her aunt in Italy, Isabel meets Madame Merle, an elegant, cultured woman who maintains a respectable life by imposing on the hospitality of her wealthy acquaintances. Madame Merle introduces Isabel to Gilbert Osmond, an American expatriate living in quiet retirement in a Roman villa with his daughter Pansy. Disarmed by Osmond’s cultivation and taken with Pansy, Isabel accepts Osmond’s offer of marriage, only to discover that he has effectively imprisoned her and, to her immense dismay, that he was formerly Madame...
(The entire section is 628 words.)