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This novel is the most stunning achievement of Henry James's early period--in the 1860s and '70s when he was transforming himself from a talented young American into a resident of Europe, a citizen of the world, and one of the greatest novelists of modern times. A kind of delight at the success of this transformation informs every page of this masterpiece. Isabel Archer, a beautiful, intelligent, and headstrong American girl newly endowed with wealth and embarked in Europe on a treacherous journey to self-knowledge, is delineated with a magnificence that is at once casual and tense with force and insight. The characters with whom she is entangled--the good man and the evil one, between whom she wavers, and the mysterious witch-like woman with whom she must do battle--are each rendered with a virtuosity that suggests dazzling imaginative powers. And the scene painting--in England and Italy--provides a continuous visual pleasure while always remaining crucial to the larger drama.
The characters in this novel are its most appealing feature; most of them, even the minor ones, are remarkably unique people. The novel opens with an English garden tea scene: in attendance are Mr. Touchette (the American banker who has retired with a huge fortune to "Gardencourt", a Tudor mansion), his son Ralph, and Lord Warburton. I would note here that Warburton is probably the person who connects most frequently with almost every other charcter..."for he is an English gentleman"(Gilbert & Sullivan). The next two characters we meet are the protagonist, the young American Isabel Archer ( the poverty-stricken but independant niece of Mrs. Touchette), and the strange Lydia Touchette herself. Mrs. Touchette is an eccentric woman but also a very selfish one; she "takes up" Isabel because she is amusing, not out of any altruistic agenda. A pivotal character who is too often overlooked in various critiques of the novel, Henrietta Stackpole is introduced to the reader around this time. She is important in the novel because she represents a truly independant American woman, earning her own living as a journalist: she is also one of the people who truly cares about Isabel.
Isabel herself has a very attractive personality. She shows herself at every point in the novel as an intelligent young woman, who is the soul of kindness towards people who need kindness: the two most outstanding ones being Mr. Touchette and his son Ralph, as they are both ill unto death, this being especially sad in the case of young Ralph. She is too trusting (see later her relationship with Mme. Merle) but also capable of guiding others through a maze of complicated motives: here the daughter of Mme. Merle and Gilbert Osmond springs to mind. Isabel is lovable because of her independence and her love of honesty and truth. Before Isabel goes to England, she is pursued by Caspar Goodwood (where did James find these names!) Mr. Goodwood represents a hard sort of American capitalist; should Isabel choose to marry him, her life will not be her own. Also, it is rather puzzling as to why he is so desperately attracted to Isabel; she certainly would not make him happy. Mr. Goodwood continues his hot pursuit overseas at least twice, but keeps getting rejected, understandably so.
The sinister characters which are introduced at this time are Serena Merle and Gilbert Osmond. James treats Mme. Merle differently from any of his other characters. For example, the reader is allowed inside her mind---she has Lydia Touchette's number and makes sarcastic remarks to herself regarding Lydia's self-congratulation upon being a selfish human being, and we are permitted to read these mental asides. Another unique matter regarding Mme. Merle's place in the novel is that James many times foreshadows her (almost) evil motivations toward Isabel. The villain of the piece, Gilbert Osmond, is only a two-dimensional character: a corrupt European, a money-hungry liar. It is somewhat difficult to understand why Isabel accepts his offer of marriage: she must have been incredibly naive to fall for this adventurer. It is also very difficult...almost impossible to see why she stays so faithfully to his ideas, when he has forbidden her to have any ideas of her own, and when she realizes that he hates her. It seems he hates her because he knows that she is of a much finer sensibility than he will ever be.
The extremely innocent characters in the novel are Pansy and Rosier (easy to see why these people have the names they do). Pansy especially seems at first to be almost mentally challenged, yet as events unfold, she proves to have a will of iron when it comes to being married off. If she cannot marry Rosier, she will not marry anyone. Rosier himself seems endearing in his constant love for Pansy and his many efforts to persuade people like Isabel to help him with his suit. It seems impossible that Lord Warburton should fall in love with someone like Pansy (and vice versa); he likes her well enough, and welcomes the chance to spend time with Isabel under the pretence of wooing Pansy.
The final character who has a part in the action (as opposed to the nuns in Italy or Lord Warburton's sisters) is the delightful Mr. Bantling. His character is so open and honest and his love for Henrietta is the novel's other main example of foreshadowing: this time of glad events, as his love is returned. They seem to be the only couple destined for obvious happiness; there is nothing sinister or secretive about their relationship. Although for many reasons nothing can come of it, the relationship between Isabel and Ralph Touchette is the most romantic and loving communication between any two people in the entire novel. At the emotional climax, when Isabel cries, "Oh Ralph, I'm very happy now", and he responds "And remember this, that if you've been hated, you've also been loved. Ah, but Isabel--adored!" there can be no doubt that it is he who adores her.
The themes and 'morals' of The Portrait of A Lady are often somewhat vague and ambiguous in nature, and may prove baffling to the reader. Such is not the case with Henry James' characters: they remain a fascinating and varied group of people. --Submitted by Anne Saturley
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