Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

The Portrait of a Lady




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


Fan of this book? Help us introduce it to others by writing a better introduction for it. It's quick and easy, click here.

Recent Forum Posts on The Portrait of a Lady

Emotional Detachment

I wonder if Isabel Archer could have survived her marriage to Gilbert Osmond through the kind of therapy used in Co-Dependents Anonymous, specifically through "emotional detachment." I have attended 12-step meetings for a year and a half, and in them I have met women who have triumphed over ugly feelings about their husbands through emotional detachment. They appear to me to be among the happiest women I have ever met in my life. I would even say that they may be the happiest persons on earth, because they have transcended themselves. At the end of the novel, Isabel Archer went back to Rome. If I were to continue the story, I would have her attain emotional detachment and literally enjoy life more than most of us because of her acquited ability to transcend not only Gilbert, but herself (especially her insistent search for independence).

An infinite hope that she should never do anything wrong

Do we finally see Isabel Archer grimly paying penance for making the foolish decision to marry a socially too astute Gilbert Osmond? Mercifully, I come to The Portrait of a Lady after reading the three late and difficult novels, although all three are truly wonderful. An easy and often humorous read, I would recommend this early novel to anyone wishing to check out Henry James. James tells us early in The Portrait of a Lady that: The girl had a certain nobleness of imagination which rendered her a good many services and played her a great many tricks. She spent half her time in thinking of beauty and bravery and magnanimity; she had a fixed determination to regard the world as a place of brightness, of free expansion, of irresistible action: she held it must be detestable to be afraid or ashamed. She had an infinite hope that she should never do anything wrong. In the closing pages, I'd like to think that the same Isabel Archer begs the irrepressible Bostonian, Caspar Goodwood, her satanic tempter in the wilderness, "Do me the greatest kindness of all...leave me alone". In the beginning, Isabel leaves Albany for Europe so that Mrs Touchett can "introduce her to the world". But the sight of Europe fails, in the end, to satisfy. Isabel yearns to discover life, on her own terms. She marries Mr Osmond! In matters of opinion she had had her own way, and it had led her into a thousand ridiculous zigzags. At moments she discovered she was grotesquely wrong, and then she treated herself to a week of passionate humility. After this she held her head higher than ever again; for it was of no use, she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself. She had a theory that it was only under this provision life was worth living; that one should be one of the best, should be conscious of a fine organisation (she couldn't help knowing her organisation was fine), should move in a realm of light The deceased Ralph, along with his father and his mother, had performed her good service. Lord Warburton had been a rich and famous distraction. Henrietta Stackpole entertainment. Caspar Goodwood - strong, intelligent and romantic - represents for Isabel what might have been, long ago. It seems to me, that Isabel returns to Rome, to Pansy and Oswald, to suffer, "in a realm of light". Isabel lives! A paradoxically glorious ending buoyed by "an infinite hope"?

The Portrait

Ive just finished reading the book and I have to say that it is probably not one ofe my favourite, probably because of all of the describtions and so on...however, it is not one of the worst books I know and there are many interesting points. Probably the most interesting is the character of Isabel herself...she is indipendant, but on the other hand she believes a lot in feelings and then teher is her naivity...but thatīs how women start probably... it is impossible for a woman to be indipendant already from her teenage period... even the most indipendant women should have started somewhere... and I would say that that is what James was trying to say . the book was about the process of becoming indipendant...well, at the end Isabel leaves Goodwood and makes finally something she does not want to you agree guys...?:)

Hi guys,...

Can anyone can give me a short description about this characters.... I hope you guys can help me please..... My literature teacher will kill me if I don't pass it to her this friday... So please guys... I need your help... Help me about these guys below... It's a kinda long but I know you guys are very helpful... So, please... I'll do the rest... My teacher allow me to read the book for 2 weeks, I know it's enough but guys, I'm teenager, I read a lot of books but I'm not interested with non-fiction storises... I like the thriller books. So guys please help me about these guys below...... Isabel Archer Caspar Goodwood Ralph Touchett( I like him...) Gilbert Osmond Madame Merle L. Warburton Daniel Touchett Mrs. Lydia Touchett Mrs. Reyes Mother Catherine Lady Pensil H. Stackpole Countess Genesis Ned Rosier Pansy Mr. Banting Mr. & Mrs. Luce Mrs. Molyneun Sir. Matthew Hope I hope you guys understand what I'm begging you... If you have any comment just send e-mail to me [email protected].. Guys I thank you so much.... For having here.... I hope you'll help me about this one..... THANKS A LOT!!!:yawnb: :yawnb:

The Portrait of a Lady (Part2)

What do you think about these three charactors : Lord Warbourton,Gilbert Osmond and Mr.Caspar Goodwood in the Portrait of a Lady by Henry James ?

the portrait of a lady

hy guys! Would you kindly post me a detailed summery of "the portrait of a lady by Henry James"? Please!I actually need it.. Thank you so much to everyone who'll help me !:)

No Subject

Is Henrietta Stackpole the journalist actually Henry James the novelist? Both are American writers who come to live in Britain. She says that she is not a landscape artist, that she needs a human interest. From James` laboured architectural descriptions the same could be said of him.

No Subject

I just finished reading this book and I think it is one of the best books I have ever read.
Several people have commented that there were too many characters. I don't think there were too many characters for a book of that length, and each one was so distinct that it is no trouble to keep them straight.
Isabel, the main character, was a bit frustrating, because every time she had a decision to make, she made the wrong one. She meant well, but she was too conceited and independent. Probably my favorite character was Ralph. In spite of his illness and early death, he led a happy and productive life.
Neither of these characters' lives had a completely happy ending , but that makes them realistic. They were interesting, lovable, and human, and some of the best and most complete characters in literature. The book has subtle wit and psychological depth, and the vocabulary is large without being cumbersome. I recommend it if you are looking for a long and involved story that gives you a lot to think about.

then and now

I did enjoy this book very much, but it left me with mixed feelings and overall rather non-plussed. I loved the sensuousness of the language, and became so involved that I wanted to follow Isabel back to Rome to find out what happened. These merits are not light or unworthy ones; yet one wonders how James could have borne to write this magnificent slab of plush without going crazy at the insanity of the world he was describing. It set my teeth on edge. Several times I thought that the whole lot of them could do with some serious sodomising ; then they might be better able to live in the world of real need and emotions instead of the pampered fat palaces of their own stupified invention. While they all minced about Rome and Florence mentally playing with themselves, people with real lives were starving in the gutters around them no doubt.
Bad as things are today, 'Portait of a Lady' made me glad that times have changed.
Laurie Breedon

No Subject

I I read this book for a book club. I was fascinated by the complete descriptions of the characters - their physical features, their class, their effect on each other.

Post a New Comment/Question on The Portrait of a Lady

Quizzes on Henry James
Related links for Henry James

Here is where you find links to related content on this site or other sites, possibly including full books or essays about Henry James written by other authors featured on this site.