Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady (1880)

Henry James (1843-1916)

     Born in NYC, traveled widely with his intellectual father and his brother William.

     Briefly attended Harvard Law but dropped out to focus on writing.

     Considered as one of the most skilled writers in America.

     His writings focus on social workings of upper class, mostly Americans in Europe.

     Plots known to be slow and eventless. Style admired for its precision and clarity.

     Became a British citizen in 1915, contesting Americanís refusal to enter WWI.

     Wrote about 100 books. Was socially distant and never married.

 

The Portrait of a Lady (1880)

ďThe real offense, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his--attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park.Ē

     Isabel Archer lost her mother at an early age, raised by her father, educated herself. Independent and well-read, her intellect often left men intimidated by her.

     Caspar Goodwood proposes to Isabel but she refuses to limit her freedom.

     When her father dies, her aunt Mrs. Touchett (American living in Europe) takes her to Europe where she meets her cousin Ralph and auntís neighbor Lord Warburton.

     Warburton proposes, Isabel rejects, wanting to do something significant in her life.

     Henrietta Stackpole, Isabelís friend, thinking Europe is corrupting Isabel, brings Caspar to try to win Isabel who tells him sheíll answer his proposal after two years.

     Mr. Touchett, convinced by Ralph, leaves half his fortune to Isabel before he dies, an inheritance that draws Madame Merleís interest.

     In Florence, Madame Merle, to benefit Gilbert Osmond, tries to win him Isabel. Gilbert is an art lover with no money whose daughter Pansy lives in a convent.

     Isabel marries Gilbert. Her friends disapprove. They soon despise each other but Isabel, though still holding on to her individuality, is committed to her social duty.

     Pansey falls in love with Edward Rosier, an American art collector who has neither wealth nor social status. Her father doesnít approve.

     Warburton arrives to Rome and begins courting Pansy in an attempt to get close to Isabel whom he still loves. Gilbert encourages this courtship but eventually Warburton feels guilty when Isabel shows his Pansey loves Edward, so he leaves.

     Ralphís health deteriorates. Isabel wants to visit him but Gilbert refuses to let her go. She gives in because she is still committed to her social duty as wife.

     She soon learns from Gilbertís sister that Gilbert and Lady Merle are lovers and Pansy is their child though she doesnít know that. Angry at her husbandís deceit and corruption, she leaves to visit Ralph in his death bed.

     At Ralphís funeral, Casper asks Isabel to leave her husband for him. She agrees at first but is soon won over by her sense of social propriety and returns to Rome.

 

About the novel:

     Realistic novel that focuses on character. Isabelís character is based on what happens in her life: independent upbringing leave her confident in her own decision.

     Isabel: individualistic, optimistic, innocent American thrown into conventional, sophisticated, corrupt Europe. Freedom vs. responsibility becomes main theme.

     Novel employs ellipses, technique that relates events after they happen, in conversations, rather than narrate them, minimizing the focus on actual event itself as it leaves a gap in narrative. Ellipses are used here at moments when Isabel chooses social conventions over individuality, making her inaccessible and lost to the readers.