The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

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Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Portrait of a Lady, James's first masterpiece, was serialized in Macmiltan's Magazine in England and in The Atlantic Monthly in America between the fall of 1880 and the winter of 1881 just prior to its publication in book form. Surpassing his previous fiction in the subtlety and depth of its characterization, it depicts one of the great heroines of the nineteenth century and has a wonderful cast of supporting characters. Its themes are of enduring interest, its social and psychological observation is acutely insightful and it is written in a rich, witty and lively style.

Set in the 1870s, The Portrait of a Lady focuses on Isabel Archer, an attractive and charming young woman from Albany who is invited to Europe by her wealthy Aunt Lydia Touchett. When the story opens, she is visiting Gardencourt, the Touchetts' country estate in England. Eager to see more of the world and to broaden her experience, she refuses an offer of marriage by the handsome and distinguished nobleman, Lord Warburton, and another by the wealthy American businessman, Caspar Goodwood. Shortly afterwards, through the generosity of her ailing cousin Ralph who is secretly in love with her, she inherits a large sum of money from her Uncle Daniel. While at Gardencourt, she is befriended by Madame Merle, a mysterious woman whose polished manners and many accomplishments inspire her admiration. When they meet again in Florence, Merle introduces her to Gilbert Osmond, a widower with an adolescent daughter and a passion for collecting art objects, whom she soon idolizes.

The narrative then leaps ahead several years to "an afternoon in the autumn of 1876," Isabel, now Mrs. Osmond, is living in Rome with her husband, from whom she has become emotionally estranged, and his daughter Pansy, who risks being forced into a loveless marriage to satisfy her father's ambitions. Isabel does not realize why her life has taken such a negative turn until she sees Merle and Osmond in intimate conversation and senses they have in some way determined her fate. She soon learns they were lovers and that Pansy is Merle's unacknowledged daughter and realizes that she herself was maneuvered into her marriage. Against her husband's wishes, she returns to Gardencourt because Ralph is fatally ill. She and her cousin finally speak openly about her failed marriage and his adoration for her and just as he dies she sees "the ghost of Gardencourt" he had once told her appeared only to those acquainted with suffering. Although momentarily tempted to seek refuge in Goodwood, who makes a final offer of love and protection, Isabel decides to return to Rome, perhaps out of respect for her marriage vows, perhaps to help Pansy, perhaps because convinced that only through further pain can she reach salvation.

The major themes of the novel are related to Isabel's quest for self-definition as a woman and as an individual. She insists she does not want to begin life by marrying, that there are other things a woman can do and that she does not need a man to teach her how to live, but she never seems to call into question that her fate depends largely on the man she chooses to marry. Accordingly, the first part of the novel focuses on her courtship and her selection of a husband as she attempts to choose "freely" in preparation for a future that will allow her further growth. In keeping with these aims, she declines to marry Warburton because she fears being enclosed in his social system and she rejects Goodwood because she is afraid his single-minded purposefulness would curtail her liberty. The idealism that makes her insensitive to the appeal of money and social status in these worthy suitors simultaneously leaves her vulnerable to manipulation by such fortune-hunters as Merle and Osmond. Osmond enchants Isabel because he projects an image of himself that has been carefully constructed to satisfy the requirements of her imagination. He pretends to have no ambitions and no concern for the world, to be a devoted...

(The entire section is 1,513 words.)