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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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...

(This entire section contains 1513 words.)

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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 father for Pansy and to care deeply that Isabel enjoy the "triumph" of doing exactly as she pleases. Only after marriage does Isabel realize that Osmond lives exclusively for appearances and form, feels he has the right to suffocate her ideas and has practically annihilated his daughter's individuality.

The spiritual dimension of Isabel's quest involves her desire to live according to her romantic dream of freedom and her high ideals of ethical behavior. As the narrator remarks, "she had a fixed determination to regard the world as a place of brightness, of free expansion, of irresistible action . . . she was always planning out her development, desiring her perfection, observing her progress." Her dream at first seems destined for fulfillment due to her youthful vitality and her intelligence. To this is added the unexpected inheritance which Ralph hopes will free her from the limitations of an impecunious girl on the marriage market and endow her with more independence than most women of that era. Nonetheless, she is defeated. In part, she is a victim of common greed and intrigue, her inexperience being skillfully exploited by her opponents. Yet she is also self-betrayed by her tendency to read reality as she wishes it to be rather than facing it directly. Isabel is not alone in her failure to realize her potential. Just as her good qualities are wasted, so too are Ralph's idealistic generosity and Pansy's sweetness thwarted by the cold and callous behavior of Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond, who increasingly stand for the destructiveness of a reality indifferent to beauty and fineness of spirit.

Isabel's defeat can also be read as a critique of the very American concept of transcendental individuality. She embodies such typically American traits as optimism, self-reliance, a desire to forge a new future, and a belief in a boundless expansion of the self. James constantly balances these ideas against the power of circumstances that bind the individual. The philosophical concepts thus placed in tension, freedom and necessity, are articulated most fully in her little debate with Madame Merle. Merle argues that one's identity depends largely on one's "whole envelope of circumstances/' asserting that "One's self — for other people — is one's expression of one's self; and one's house, one's furniture, one's garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps — these things are all expressive." To this, Isabel replies: "I think just the other way: I don't know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me. Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me; everything's on the contrary, a limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one." Isabel's innocent idealism is admirable but the more cynical and sophisticated Merle is wiser in the ways of the world. In fact, Isabel's external circumstances help determine her fate. Merle wants her to marry Osmond for the financial security she may someday provide for Pansy while Osmond wants her for her money and because he views her as a beautiful object to add to his collection. When Isabel finally realizes the extent to which outside forces have shaped her as a social being and delimited the expansion of her inner self, she experiences a profound psychological crisis. However, as she reaches a new equilibrium, she remains convinced that it is still possible to act responsibly and in conformity with her personal conscience and her sense of justice. Her insight suggests that, for James, balanced maturity lies in the recognition that the self and the world constantly interact and that the search for fulfillment within an inevitably circumscribed field of action is never complete.

Along with these acute social and psychological themes, The Portrait of a Lady has a moral level that unfolds in an almost allegorical manner as the struggle between goodness and evil. Isabel, radiating innocence and confident in her high ideals, enters Garden-court, a place of Edenic beauty and brightness that seems to reflect the purity of her inner spirit. She hardly recognizes the existence of pain and evil and she even tells Ralph — her guardian angel — that "It's not absolutely necessary to suffer; we were not made for that." Inexperienced and immature, she leaves Gardencourt determined to fulfill her highest aspirations for a life of spiritual richness, intellectual discovery and human satisfaction. However, the forces of evil await her. At the instigation of Madame Merle, she meets Osmond, a satanic figure whose "egotism lay hidden like a serpent in a bank of flowers." Osmond is guilty of what James's predecessor Nathaniel Hawthorne termed "the unpardonable sin" of intentional manipulation of other people. This sin manifests itself in his greed, his lack of values and the cold inhumanity that allows him to use other people to satisfy his vanity and his ambitions. It also surfaces in his consummate powers of dissimulation which prevent Isabel from recognizing her danger. Thus, she unwittingly lets herself be imprisoned in a life-diminishing marriage where her vision of "the infinite vista of a multiplied life" together with Osmond concretizes in "a dark, narrow alley, with a dead wall at the end."

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