Sense of Place in the Novel The Portrait of a Lady

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      Those who live intensely, feel everything intensely. For them every relationship, anything that ever had to do something with that relationship is important. These are the people who can always adjust themselves, since they know how to live. Gradually sense of place becomes an important part of their mental and emotional makeup. Sense of place is also an important and engaging aspect of Henry James’s art as a novelist. When the characters respond to familiar or unfamiliar settings, they do in their own characteristic way but a skillful artist also conveys to the reader how the things look and how far is their response a key to unlock that particular setting. James’s American characters, particularly in the stories like “A Passionate Pilgrim” and “The Madonna of the Future” respond to the unfamiliar setting, the Hampton court the colleges of Oxford, and the streets of Florence in a characteristic American way.

‘Sense of place’ as used in “The Portrait of a Lady”

      Irving, Cooper, Emerson, Mark Twain, Howells, Norton—all these famous nineteenth-century American writers journeyed to Europe and wrote about their experiences in Europe. James was the archetype of this distinguished company. In The Portrait of a Lady James uses this sense of place as a complex metaphorical framework.

Places in “The Portrait of a Lady”

      Different places in The Portrait of a Lady are there not just for their own sake, or as mere physical setting but they are integrated with characters and situations in a very suggestive and subtle manner. They contribute to the experience of the characters and also equip the reader with a new dimension in the interpretation of their character. Houses, castles, gardens, art galleries etc.,—all are used in a powerfully symbolic way and on a deeper level they become the very symbol of the drama of confrontation and involvement. These places add to and sometimes heighten the intensity of the experience and slowly and slowly me into James’s moral vision.

      The international theme is an important aspect of The Portrait of a Lady. In this novel we have not only the portrait of Isabel on the international scale but even the whole novel can be described as portraits of places. Its major characters are expatriate Americans. There are some characters (like the Touchetts,) who have adjusted themselves, to the new setting while keeping their Americanness fully intact. There are others, like Henrietta Stackpole and Caspar Goodwood who can not change. Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle, on the other hand have disamericanized themselves that the reader has to be reminded that they too are expatriate Americans who have sought new roots in the European soil. Ralph is the one, for whom the physical confines of a country do not matter—he is an artist—without any country: Isabel is the innocent abroad and Europe adequately answers her needs, intellectual as well as emotional.

Henrietta’s response to places

      Henrietta is the one character who is interested in places for ‘their own sake, in a way she is interested in them for the Interviewer. Places, and people exist for her is so far as she can put their impressions into her professional letters for the Interviewer. She may like to confront but, she can never get involved. Thus her response is quite objective. James also writes about her : “She proved an indestructible sight-seer and a more lenient judge than Ralph had ventured to hope. She had many disappointments, and London at large suffered from her vivid remembrances of the strong points of the American civic idea; but she made the best of its dingy dignifies and only heaved an occasional sigh and uttered a desultory “Well,” which led no further and lost itself in retrospect.

Isabel’s Response

      Isabel is the heroine of The Portrait of a Lady and thus her response to places is of major importance. Isabel is one who sought a general impression of life. Her imagination was vigorously active and she had many theories too. Characteristically enough, her response to places is vague, at moments sentimentalized, and is always under the shadow of her ridiculously active imagination. People and places can never be separated from situations since the situations condition the response. When accompanied by Ralph and Henrietta, Isabel goes to London, a zest for learning and confidence in herself is one of her bright characteristics. At this stage London provides her all the sensations which she needs. She feels, walking in the foggy London street: “The world lay before her—she could do whatever she chose.” London sends thrilling shivers in her body: “The early dusk of a November afternoon had already closed in; the street lamps, in the thick, brown air, looked weak and red; our heroine was unattended and Easton Square was a long way from Picadilly. But Isabel performed the journey with positive enjoyment of its dangers and lost her way almost on purpose, in order to get more sensations so that she was disappointed when an obliging policemen set her right again she was so fond of the spectacle of human life that enjoyed even the aspect of gathering dusk in the London streets—the moving crowds, the hurrying cabs, the lighted shops, the flaring Halls, the dark shining dampness of everything. But when Isabel comes to London after defying Osmond, London to makes her nervous and afraid. Her married life is nothing more than a form with no substance and now she has come to see to her dying cousin’.

      “There was something terrible in an arrival in London. The dusky, smoky, far-arching vault of the station, the strange livid light, the dense, dark, pushing crowd, filled her with a nervous fear and made her put her arm into her friend’s. She remembered she had once liked these things; they seemed part of a mighty spectacle in which there was something that had touched her. She remembered how she walked away from Esston in the Winter dusk, in the crowded sheets five years before. She could not have done that today, and the incident came before he has the deeds of another person.


      After Mr. Touchett’s death, Isabel accompanies Mrs. Touchett on a continental tour. Paris was her father’s Mecca and she had visited it as a child but the memories now were too faint. In Paris she meets many expatriate Americans who are simply trifling away their life and it disturbs her. She asks them: “You all live here this way, but what does it lead to ? It does not seem to lead to anything, and I should think you’d get very tired of it”. Ned Rosier answers: “Why ? Paris leads everywhere, you can’t go anywhere unless you come here first. Everyone that comes to Europe has got to pass through. You don’t mean it in that sense so much ? You mean what good it does you ? Well how can you penetrate futurity ? How can you tell what lies ahead ? If it is a pleasant road I don’t care where it leads”. Paris does not lead Isabel anywhere, it’s no more than an ordinary stoppage for her.


      Italy is not like Paris since Isabel knew that “Italy stretched before her as a land of promise, a land in which a love of the beautiful might be comforted by endless knowledge. Italy, unlike Paris enkindles her imagination. But, as luck would have it in this land of promise Isabel becomes the victim of a horrid conspiracy and the endless knowledge becomes the knowledge of evil, for Isabel as well as for the reader.


      Rome seems to be a step further as far as the idea of places moving Isabel to explore new venues is concerned. Rome, its past history and its ruins move Isabel inwardly. James has used Rome as a setting for Isabel's tragedy. We get a powerful poetic account of Isabel’s discovery of the affinity between her own ruined life and the ruins of Rome:

      “She had long before taken old Rome into her confidence, for in a world of ruins the ruin of her happiness seemed a less unnatural catastrophe. She rested her weariness upon things that had crumbled for centuries and yet still were upright. She dropped her secret silence into the silence of lonely places, where it’s very modern quality detached itself and grew objective... in the large Roman record and her haunting sense of the continuity of the human lot easily carried her from the less to the greater. She had become deeply, tenderly acquainted with Rome ; it interfused and moderated her passion. But she had grown to think of it chiefly as the place where people had suffered.”

      As Isabel feels an affinity with the ruin of Rome, her personal sadness merges with the splendid sadness of the Roman scene.

      This essay on The Sense of Place in The Portrait of a Lady will remain incomplete without a study of place in metaphor.


      In The Portrait of a Lady we get not only the portraits of people but also the portraits of places. The description of Osmond’s Florentine Villa is a powerfully vivid painting in words. Places are settings for the most intense drama of Isabel’s life and her life ebbs and flow with the overall impression of their places and vice-versa.

University Questions

1. Write a critical note on James’s sense of place in The Portrait of a Lady.

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