Critically Analysis of the Novel The Portrait of a Lady

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      Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady is one of the most important novels in our study of the American novel. Its rich complexity makes one wonder at its life-likeness. From the archetypal myth of the fall of man to the psychic complexities of life, from man’s quest for freedom to his predicament as an eternal outsider, from the destructive power of pride, egotism, and evil to the creative consciousness of man—every aspect of life is richly woven in the texture of this masterpiece of Henry James.

The Source

      The novel is unique among James’s major fiction because no detailed account of the novel occurred until a few months before its publication serially in Macmillan’s Magazine in England and The Atlantic Monthly in America in the autumn of 1880. There are no biographical parallels to this novel in his Note Book.

      Undoubtedly, James was inspired by the memory of his beloved cousin Minny Temple, in the creation of Isabel Archer. Minny Temple, his cousin was a prototype of the charmingly ingenuous American girl whose portrait James paints in Notes of a Son, and Brother : “Natural to an effect of perfect felicity that we were neve’ to see surpassed is what I have already praised the Albany cousin age for being. But in none of the company was the note so clear as in the rarest, though at the same time symptomatically or ominously palest flower of the stem, who was natural at more points and about more things, with a greater range of freedom and a ease and reach of horizon than any of the others dreamed of”.

      James observed in his autobiography : “Life claimed her, and passed her and beset her, made her range in her groping, her naturally immature and unlighted way from beginning to end of the scale”. This observation about Minny Temple is also applicable to Isabel Archer. When James’s friend Grace Norton hinted at the identification between Minny Temple and Isabel Archer, James replied: “You are
both right and wrong about Minny Temple. I had her in mind and there is in the heroine a considerable infusion of my impression of her remarkable nature. But the thing is not a portrait. Poor Minny was essentially incomplete and I have attempted to make my young woman more rounded, more finished”.

      However, James has endowed Isabel with the background of his own childhood, too. Like James himself, Isabel was thrice taken to Europe by her father before she was fourteen, she has James’s own passion for experience, and she reacts as he did against “the detestable American Paris”.

      Ralph Touchett is not a fully autobiographical character but there are numerous parallels between Henry James and Ralph Touchett - in their detachment which is at an opposite extreme from the detachment of Gilbert Osmond, in their love to make the adumbration’s certainties as far as imagination is concerned, and in their hopeless and unfulfilled love for a cousin from Albany.

      “As far as the character of Osmond and Pansy is concerned, in a travel sketch written in 1877, James had remarked on the tranquil, contented life of the father and daughter, and many years later in his autobiography, he commented on the ‘seed of suggestion’ which this image had planted:

      Another then lonely and bereft American, addicted to the arts and endowed for them, housed to an effect of long expatriation in a massive old Florentine Villa, with a treasured and tended little daughter by his side, that was the germ which for reasons beyond my sounding the care of Frask Boott had been appointed to plant deep down in my vision of things”.

      Isabel’s relationship with Pansy may have been suggested by Minny Temple’s great affection for Elizabeth Boott, whose charm seemed so abundantly to represent the ‘aesthetic, historic, romantic’ spell of the “old world’,’ writes David Galloway.

      A part of James’s own mind and temperament went into the creation of Gilbert Osmond. Osmond’s selfishness and “demonic imagination” are reminiscent of James’s ‘buried life’ some part of which he himself did not acknowledge, but which flowed from the depths of his heart to the pages of The Portrait of a Lady without any effort.
James also said about the character of Henrietta Stackpole that she was a composite of ‘‘a variety of encounters and acquaintances made during the last few years”.

      However, even in the Preface, Limes did not name the actual prototypes of his characters. His actors assured him that they would show him what Isabel would do if he simply would trust them; James did, “with an urgent appeal to them to make it at least as interesting as they could...They were like a group of attendants and entertainers who came down by train when people in the country give a party; they represent the contract for carrying the party on. That was an excellent relation with them.”

The Background of the Novel

      As there are no boundaries to the mind of a creative writer, similarly to The Portrait of a Lady there are no physical limits. In its pages it embraces countries as diverse as England, America and Rome. James R. Lindroth observed about the historical background of the novel : “In the late nineteenth-century America was a strong and wealthy country but essentially an immature one; the confrontation of American innocence and European sophistication was a social fact not something that Henry James had imagined. There was also at this time a great rush of international marriages (a custom which continued well into the twentieth century) in which aristocratic but impoverished European nobility married wealthy but common American girls. This sort of union obviously could satisfy two desires; the ancient European name was given financial backing, and the brash ‘new’ American wealth achieved a kind of decorative respectability. The figure of the American title-hunter became as common in Europe as the fortune-hunter has always been; James was not the only author to develop this kind of material”.

The Ending of the Novel

      The ending of The Portrait of a Lady is one of its most important critical aspects. It is so because on this very aspect is hinged the whole problem of Isabel’s growth. Critics who are ready to grant that Isabel does climb the steps of mental and emotional growth find full justification in the ending, while, those opposed to it keep looking for a grain of justification in the ending. It is true that the ending does not have a sense of finality and Isabel’s crisis remains a crisis. But, her sense of moral responsibility has deepened and a new awareness has crept into every niche and corner of her mind. When she decides to return to Rome, innumerable doubts and rumblings about her future trouble the reader but it seems that she has said, “Nothing matters. The only thing that matters is that one must live one’s life in terms of one’s sternest moral dictates”. That’s why we can, towards the end, hone with Isabel:

      “It could not be she (Isabel) was to live only to suffer ; she was still young after all and a great many things might happen yet. To live only to suffer—only to feel the injury of life repeated and too capable for that.”

      The Title. “The title, of The Portrait of a Lady is a deeply suggestive one and it underlines a serious theme. Undoubtedly the title; is a deeply expressive and suggestive one. It also tells us about James’s interest in painting and other visual arts. The serious theme which it underlines is concerned with the observance of appearances. Closely allied with this theme is that of the cardinal Jamesian sin in which one person makes ‘use’ of another person for his own ends. Here Osmond first accepts Isabel as a ‘gift’; then ‘sacrifices’ her ideas and ideals and ultimately aims at turning her into a ‘portrait’ to decorate his villa.

The Major Themes

      Three major themes of James contribute a lot to the full? and comprehensive portrait of Isabel:

      1. The International theme : It is present in almost everything that James wrote. In some of his works the plot hinges on this theme and much of the character is revealed to us through it. This observation is absolutely true of The Portrait of a Lady. Isabel Archer is not only a character, but a representative of the whole American culture. In the novel James spends much time on the comparison and contrast of the two cultures — European and American can-through the description of places, things, houses, landscapes. The particular care that James lavished on the international theme was the outcome of the fact that he had dreamt of a better civilization in which were assimilated the best of every culture.

      2. Innocence in search of experience : As far as this theme is concerned, the character of Isabel is to be studied for its proper understanding and evaluation. Isabel is representative of the American civilization confronting the vast civilization of Europe. This theme portrays a completely unsophisticated pilgrim searching a new society, a new cultural heritage or just plain adventure. Isabel is not a completely blank slate. The qualities and characteristics that she possesses can become restrictions. Isabel’s determination and passion for freedom are the major qualities with which she enters Europe.

      3. The cardinal Jamesian sin : A third theme deals with worst possible human crime : the ‘use’ of one person for one’s own gains. In this crime some human beings consider other human beings as. means to an end and not ends in themselves. Madame Merle and Osmond are glaring contrasts to the Touchetts. They don’t have any qualms of conscience when they plan to sacrifice Isabel’s ideas, and ambitions in realizing their own plans, whereas the Touchetts will not even conceive of it, what to talk of doing. This ‘use’ of Isabel by Osmond and Madame Merle makes interesting the story of the novel. We should also notice the fact that this very exploitation or use gradually results in the “expanding consciousness” of Isabel.

Artistic Dimensions

      Now we will have a glance at the important facets of Jamesian technique. The first is the problem of “the central intelligence”. James consistently uses a chosen centre of attraction in order to bring the novel into sharp focus. Essentially this is a means of “locating” his story so that the way in which the story is told becomes a part of the story itself. The point of view character; “the central intelligence” always presents a creative sense and the reader feels a particular consciousness to be shaping the events of the story. An important thing in the reading of a Jamesian novel is to discover this point of view character. The second important aspect of Jamesian technique is his use of the dramatic method. Now, undoubtedly the dramatic method is opposed to the descriptive method, mainly because the dramatic method consists in a complete identification in understanding the main incidents and situations of the novel between the reader and the main characters of the novel. The chapter thirty-one is a purely descriptive chapter since there is little need or possibility of dramatic action or dialogue. The next chapter, thirty-two is entirely dramatic. Here the important 'Confrontation revealing the cast of Isabel’s mind is shown to us directly. Throughout the novel the reader sees, learns and feels along with Isabel, not before or after her.


      In a novel, one does hope for a story. But the story or the plot never sufficed James. It was always the psychological complexity, the inward voyage, a peep into the depths beyond the surfaces which interested him. It is because of this reason that all attempts at the summarization of a Jamesian novel are doomed to failure. It is not the event which mattered for James, but the reflections, the reverberations, the vibrations, the ripples that spread out after the momentary splash—these were the real concern of James.


      James is not a famous symbolic writer but his description of landscapes and buildings are significant because he regarded them as indicative of and articulating the unspoken volumes of a particular culture of a particular inhabitant. Osmond is a collector of medallions, crucifixes, and tapestries, but he is a ‘sterile dilettante’. His approach to human beings is same—he uses objects of art unaesthetically, he uses human beings unsympathetically, unscrupulously. His entire pleasure lies in collecting things, possessing them and exercising his full physical control over them. Pansy is a ‘dusty’ object for him and Isabel too is a ‘gift’ to him from Madame Merle. Isabel does see the ‘true’ Osmond but all that is too late and when we find her seeking strength and consolation from the ruins of Rome, we understand not only her communion with the history of villainy but her acceptance of her place in it as well.

Metaphor and Imagery

      For a proper understanding of the relationship of morality and art we should study James’s use of metaphor. It is through the use of metaphor that James adumbrates the situation. In chapter forty-seven, James uses a lengthy simile to describe the interview between Goodwood and Isabel. He writes :

      “He had left her that morning with a sense of the most superfluous of shocks : it was like a collision between vessels in broad daylight. There had been no mist, no hidden current to excuse it, and she herself had only wished to steer wide. He had bumped against her prow, however, while her hand was on the tiller, and to complete the metaphor, had given the lighter vessel a strain which still occasionally betrayed itself in a faint creaking. It had been horrid to see him...”

      Thus we can say that the Jamesian novel demands a keen eye and a keen insight. James is saying : “This is a difficult situation I want to show it to you in all of its complexities and many of its depths; pay attention; pay close attention. The satisfactions and responsibilities of awareness, like the ruins of Rome, are no place for the casual tourist”.

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