The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

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Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 593 words.)