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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Ideas for Group Discussions

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Throughout the novel the various characters and the narrator attempt to trace Isabel's portrait but no one succeeds completely. A fruitful topic for discussion would be what motivates the desire to "fix" her in a static depiction and why it is so difficult to do so. Isabel herself makes a strong effort to escape final definition by others since her youth, optimism and imagination make her desire constant change and growth. Inevitably, however, her dream of freedom and her extreme individualism come up against the inherent limitations of life in the human community. Groups may wish to examine the many aspects of James's development of the theme of freedom vs. necessity. In addition, it would be interesting to consider to what extent the vision of self, society and others that emerges in this novel is relevant in the contemporary world. Also inviting serious discussion is the theme of belated knowledge and self-awareness, especially on the part of characters like Isabel and Ralph who pride themselves on their supposed ability to face life directly. Examination of their errors could lead to speculation about the tragic quality of James's view of human nature and about the difficult choices we all have to make in determining what opportunities are true occasions for growth and which conceal hidden dangers. James refused to give his novel a happy ending or even to imply that Isabel's decision to return to Rome would ultimately bring her serenity and happiness. Discussion of the ending could center on the historical and psychological circumstances influencing Isabel's decision, whether it has dramatic verisimilitude and how convincing it seems today.

1. What do the concepts "freedom," "choice" and "destiny" mean for Isabel? Does anyone else in the story share these ideas?

2. To what extent is Isabel's rejection of Lord Warburron and Caspar Goodwood due to her fear they will limit her freedom to explore the world and to what extent is it related to her fear of sexuality? What images suggest these various fears?

3. Why does Ralph want Isabel to inherit a large sum of money? Is his altruism mixed with any selfish motives? When does he realize the seriousness of his mistake?

4. When does the reader begin to suspect that Madame Merle is not the woman Isabel believes her to be? Why doesn't Isabel suspect her of duplicity? Why did Merle give up her daughter?

5. What is Mrs. Touchett's role in the novel?

6. What elements of Osmond's characterization make him the most diabolic figure in the novel? What symbols reinforce his association with the devil?

7. Why does Isabel choose Osmond as her husband? What does this choice reveal about her?

8. Why is Isabel reluctant to tell Ralph she is unhappy in her marriage? What does her evident unhappiness mean for Ralph?

9. How are Gardencourt and Palazzo Roccanera set in contrast? What aspects of Isabel's quest do they respectively represent?

10. James believed that Isabel's meditation in Chapter Forty Two advanced his plot as efficiently as a series of external events. What "happens" in this chapter? How has Isabel changed as a result of her meditation? How do these changes affect her later actions?

11. How does James use Pansy and her infatuation with Ned Rosier to illuminate Osmond's character?

12. How does Pansy's situation contribute to Isabel's deepening awareness of her own predicament?

13. Why does Osmond forbid Isabel to go to Gardencourt when Ralph is dying? Why is Isabel reluctant to disobey him?

14. What does Isabel learn about herself at Gardencourt? What does she learn about her relationship to others?

15. What motivates Isabel's decision to return to Rome?

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