Isabel Archer: Character Analysis - The Portrait of a Lady

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      Isabel Archer is the most fascinating character in The Portrait of a Lady. She is the lady whose portrait we get in the novel. She is the most complex and fully realized of James’s characters. Her complexity is the outcome of certain contradictions in her nature and we have a better grip of this complexity if we examine carefully the new facets and dimensions of her personality as they unraveled to us by and by.

      Isabel Archer is the “certain young woman affronting her destiny.” In the Preface James asks : “What will she do?” In the novel Ralph too wonders : “What will she do.” Time and again this question disturbs the reader as well. Henrietta Stackpole, towards the end of the novel asks Isabel: “What have you done with your life?” Between these two questions—Ralph’s and Henrietta’s — is compressed the life of Isabel, who was “ground in the very mill of the conventional.”

Isabel: the Nucleus

      Isabel is the nucleus of the novel, the other characters are there as electrons and protons. It is she whom we study as we turn over the pages of the novel. The novel is a study in a young woman’s understanding of herself through contemplation and a process of self-knowledge. Mrs. Touchett, Isabel’s aunt, brings Isabel to England. At Gardencourt, Isabel meets new people, develops new relationships. She rejects Lord Warburton’s proposal of marriage. She also refuses the hand of Caspar Goodwood in her journey on the wheel of time and life. After her uncle’s death, she With Mrs. Touchett leaves England. In Florence, Isabel meets Osmond. Osmond too proposes and Isabel accepts the proposal. Her married life is a happy one, it is nothing else but a complete disillusionment. Gradually she too becomes an object d’art to decorate Osmond’s house. When the news of Ralph’s serious illness arrives, she defies Osmond and comes to England to meet her ‘dying cousin’. Ralph dies; Isabel sheds tears. Caspar Goodwood once again wants Isabel to shed away the old ties and start all afresh. Isabel does not agree and comes back to Rome to live with Osmond. This is, in short, the story of Isabel Archer, who loved life so intensely that she had to recoil from it.

Isabel is Young, Beautiful and Vivacious

      Isabel is a young, pretty, black-haired, willowy creature whose grey eyes reveal the innocence of her background as well as the determination and enthusiasm of her mission to Europe. Isabel’s charming manners and graces win the hearts of those who come in contact with her. She brings a great deal of ‘romance’, charm and freshness to the Garden court. She considers life as an inexhaustible source of knowledge and happiness and “her deepest enjoyment was to feel the continuity between the movements of her own soul and the agitations of the world.” Her idea of happiness is “a swift carriage of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can’t see.”

The earlier Isabel

      Isabel in her Albany house, felt a sense of void in her existence and had a desire to leave the past behind. Her imagination was too strong and ridiculously active. She had formed many theories — the stimulus coming from her excessive reading on which basis she had thought to quench her thirst of life. Erratic indulgence and erratic education had given her an ambivalent view of the learned state. She comes to Europe, with her ‘meagre knowledge, her inflated ideals, her confidence at once innocent and dogmatic, her temper, at once exacting and indulgent.’ Isabel is intellectually superior to those among whom she has been brought up. A limitation of her character was that she always overlooked the reality, since she always viewed life through the medium of literature, or through a blinding film of imagination. She has pitched her ideals too high and it is for her love to realize those ideals that she rejects Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood.

      In Isabel, we have an ironic blend of strengths and weaknesses. Throughout the novel we witness the horrifying spectacle of Isabel suffering on account of her very qualities. She loved freedom and it was because of this that she made a wrong choice in marrying Osmond. Her love of imagination and ideas, her intellectual superiority, her vibrant interest in LIFE—all in turn became the agents of her tragedy.

The later Isabel

      There is a remarkable difference between the Isabel of early chapters and Isabel of the last chapters. The most important characteristic which dominates the novel is the presence of change in the features and postures of the subject. For the “tangle of vague outlines” upon which the young girl based her independent opinions and the idealism “beauty and bravery and magnanimity” were overlaid by the lines of a sadder and wiser married woman who “dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places”, of the ruins of Rome. In other words, Isabel is the Eve-like adventuress reminiscent of so many heroes and heroines of fiction who insist on their freedom and independence and who come to some sort of accommodation with reality within more strict confines than their original background allowed them to anticipate.

      In the end she has seen the world, explored all the niches and corners of the house of experience. She accepts suffering as the inevitable price that one must pay for coming to terms with the moral intricacy of the world. Now comes the question, has Isabel developed spiritually and mentally? It is one of the most hotly debated issues as far as the character of Isabel is concerned. For a fully reasoned answer the reader must read the essay entitled “Isabel: from Innocence to Experience”.

Isabel’s “fears”

      Some critics are of the view that the strongest emotion of Isabel is that of fear. Different reasons for Isabel’s rejection of Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood have been advanced. Those who wish to dwell on the sex theme in the novel try to uphold the fact that Isabel’s rejection springs from her fear of sex. This is the only reason why Isabel is drawn to the sexless love of dying Ralph. Critics have gone to the extent of blaming Henry James for Isabel’s fears, since Isabel is no more than a transvest of the author. This fear has also been attributed to her frigidity, that she too, like Osmond, is sterile.

      This emotion keeps dominating many of the scenes. In the chapter fifty-one, she acknowledges that she is afraid of herself’. We do realize, at this point in the novel, that fear is something universal. Each and every human being lives in its clutches, one way or the other. A human being’s life-from childhood to death or even after death is hovered about by this sense of fear.

      Isabel has a fear of reality too. She is innocent and an unquenchable desire to think well of herself always spurs her to explore new realms. One of her presumptions is that she can see life from a detached, almost theoretical point of view. The following conversations between Ralph and Isabel deserves attention in this connection: “You want to see life-you’ll be hanged if you don’t, as the young men say”. “I don’t think I want to see it as the young men want to see it. But I do want to look about me.”

      “You want to drain the cup of experience. It is a poisoned drink! I want to only see for myself.”

      “You want to see, but not to feel.” Ralph remarked.

      Isabel may not agree with what Ralph says but she is to learn that “seeing” and “experiencing” cannot be categorized like this. Slowly and slowly she succumbs to appearances very much like Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle. It happens not because of her blind worship of convention and form, but because she has a certain fear of reality itself.

Isabel is a Tragic Character

      This too is an important issue as far as Isabel’s character is concerned. Critics are not liberal in granting Isabel the tragic grandeur. They are liberal to the extent of accepting a co-existence of tragic and comic elements in the novel. In whatever light we may choose to view Isabel’s early life, there is no doubt that the sense of isolation that encroaches upon her after her marriage to Osmond, the tragic waste that the last pages of the novel articulate, the emotional cannibal to which she has been subjected by Osmond all provoke us to understand Isabel’s character truly. She has suffered a lot and the suffering has not come to an end—no matter which form it will take.

Isabel’s return to Rome

      Isabel defies Osmond and goes to meet her ‘dying’ cousin Ralph. After Ralph’s death, she has a passionate and the final encounter with Caspar Goodwood. But she overcomes the temptations and' returns back to Osmond. She promised Pansy that she would return and she always honored the promises. She had committed a mistake in marrying Osmond but she had no ‘wish’ to publish the mistake and thus chose to live with Osmond rather than accept the easy alternative which Caspar Goodwood offers. She also had an intense sense of duty and a deep-seated belief in the sanctity of marriage. What she does in the end is in harmony with the facets of her personality that we have seen earlier. In the ruins of Rome, Isabel consoled herself in the company of history. Her sense of participation in the continuity of human life does not come to an end and this is what offers her a sort of release from Osmond’s confines.

Action of the novel is a product of Isabel’s Consciousness

      Henry James insisted that all action should develop naturally from the character. All the action of the novel emanates from Isabel’s consciousness. It is for determination, her decisions, her motivations, that rule the action. External events such as wars, accidents, historical events or the intervention of other people do not bring about a change in Isabel’s fortunes.


      We can conclude by saying that Isabel is a remarkable human character—having human weaknesses and strengths. She is the most memorable of James’s character.

University Questions

“Despite her deeply repressed sexuality, Isabel remains among the most complex, the most fully realized, and the- most humanely fascinating of James’s characters”. Discuss- the statement.
Though Isabel Archer is one of the most significant and appealing of heroines, she has some glaring faults.” Discuss.
‘‘a woman apparently made for nothing but happiness condemns herself to a life which cannot be happy, because she has been made aware of ‘what people must know and. suffer” Comment the implications of this remark in connection with character of Isabel Archer.
Write a short note on James’s art of characterization with special reference to Isabel.

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