The Title of the Novel: The Portrait of a Lady

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      Sometimes a striking aspect of appearance catches the eye to the extent that it fully reveals the personality of that particular person. In this respect a harmony in different facets of that personality is immensely contributive, obviously, the most striking thing about a literary work is its title. Sometimes we do repent for being ensnared by the title but on the other hand, sometimes the title pleases us because it sums up that literary work. The latter is the case with the title of The Portrait of a Lady.

James was Interested in Paintings

      The title of The Portrait of a Lady is immensely suggestive and expressive. We should keep in mind James’s interest in paintings which made him choose titles accordingly, in order to fully grasp its significance. David Galloway has talked about James’s interest in painting and other visual arts. This interest in visual arts is amply illustrated by the titles of the collection of essays, Portrait of Places (1883) and Partial Portraits (1888). In 1903 James published a nostalgic biography of his friend William Wetmore Story—an American sculptor who had expatriated and settled in Rome; his major essays on the pictorial arts were collected and published in 1896 under the very appropriate title, The Painter's Eye. If we keep all this in mind, the title of The Portrait of a Lady seems to elucidate its significance itself, by and by.

What is new about the Title

      Students of literature at once become conscious of something unique about the title, at a first glance on the book. Some authors name their work after the name of the central character e.g. Hamlet, Oliver Twist, King Lear, Tom Jones etc; some name the work keeping in mind the place of action which sprinkles its influence on everything and everybody in the novel, e. g. Wuthering Heights' Howard’s End, Walden', some others names the book after its thems e.g. Women in Love, Heart of Darkness, A Farewell to Arms etc. But as far as the title of this novel is concerned, though it simply means the portrait of Isabel Archer, every detail and critical aspect of the novel is fully consistent with the title and all these in one way or the other emphasize each other.

It is the Portrait of Isabel Archer

      James has drawn a vast family portrait in which the central figure is Isabel. The background, and the scenery, contribute a lot to the whole portrait but are finally subservient to the central portrait. The author himself was fully conscious of it and he had noted to Minny Temple, “everything that took place around her took place as if primarily in relation to her and in her interest.” In this novel the background is fully drawn before the central portrait becomes complete and we know that this vital, restless vivacious lady won’t sit long for her portrait, thus the subject is constantly altering and the central portrait changes the background, the scenery accordingly.

The Title has a Symbolic Significance

      In symbolic terms, the title of the novel suggests a portrait of Isabel, which is to accept the confines of morals and conscience and be satisfied with its place in Gilbert Osmond's museum. In this respect the ‘portrait’ - aspect is not just limited to Isabel. Osmond who loves paintings has tried his level best to turn Pansy into a beautiful ‘portrait’, the credit of whose beauty will go to him. Besides all this what is Osmond himself with his curtains old crucifixes, bibelots, pictures, medallions and tapestries! Has not he accepted the frame of a finished ‘portrait’? 

The Portrait asks us to “see”

      In an essay on The Portrait of a Lady, Dorothy Van Ghent writes; “The title, The Portrait, asks the eye to see. The informing and strengthening of the mind is the theme—the ultimate knowledge, the thing finally ‘seen’ of stimulating a more subtle and various activity of perception.” Isabel comes to Europe to “see” life and not to “feel” it. How one looks at objects and how one looks at situations are closely related in James’s work and therefore the depth of a character’s perceptions toward landscape, paintings or buildings is often an index of his ability to perceive truth or the depth of other situations.

The Title has a Double Significance

      According to Quentin Anderson, the title of this novel has a double significance. His “Lady” makes the mistake to which the mankind is most susceptible. She tried to make the world reflect her, instead of perceiving that the world just reflects the sources of being. At the end of the novel Isabel tries to rectify her error as all the mankind does at one moment or another. But Osmond’s appropriation of Isabel as a portrait is a cardinal Jamesian sin. What Osmond does is to try and make the young American girl, representative of the promise of life, reflect him. This is not marriage but concubinage. Isabel’s greed is worldly and corrigible, Osmond’s is spiritual and it damns him.

Love of Appearances

      Madame Merle tells Isabel in chapter nineteen as she remarks: “When you’ve lived as long as I, you’ll see that every human being has his shell, and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There is no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we are each of us made up of a cluster of appurtenances. What do you call one’s self? Where does it begin? Where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us—and then it flows back again. These things are all expressive.”

      This passage, in a remarkable way sums up Madame Merle’s character—a devotee of appearances. The novel, read in the context of this passage, helps us to understand the profound effect that Madame Merle has on Isabel. We know, right from the beginning that Isabel sought a “general” impression of life to which she could add footnotes later on. It is because of this that Isabel is not able to get at the true character of life and character of Osmond and Madame Merle because she herself lives at the outer, the superficial level. Lost in the entanglements of appearances, she misses the inner reality of things. She wishes to emulate Madame Merle. She tries to live up to Osmond’s ideals and become a finely finished work of art which re-echoes and reflects his ideas and taste. 

      Throughout the novel the settings are supposed to and they in fact do tell us a lot about their inhabitants. Thus at every step, at every level, reality seems to retreat a bit and appearances start shining more brightly. In the end we see Isabel, a really vivacious character transformed into a ‘portrait’. And is ‘portrait’ anything more than ‘appearance’?


      The title of this novel is thus significant in many ways and the titles of only a few novelists would be equally significant. The title is remarkably expressive and suggestive.

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