The Portrait of a Lady Copy


Henry James is a key novelist in making the transition between literary realism and literary modernism.

3 periods are represented in James’ prose:

  • Early years: short prose – realism;
  • Middle years: novels – psychological realism;
  • Later years: experimental novels with modernist traits.

Realism in James’ novels:

  • His novels depict a class of people who can devote themselves to the refinements of life;
  • Master of narrative perspective;
  • The novels are faithful to their characters; his characters never do anything that could be interpreted as outside their nature;
  • The novels present realistic situations in the sense that everyone can encounter them;
  • The author is interested in a faithful rendition of the character. 

Pre-modernism in James’ novels:

  • Opaque narrative;
  • Negotiations of everyday social relations;
  • Uncertainty in consciousness;
  • Narrative indirectness and puzzle structure.

THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY (published 1881)


  • Genre: a coming-of-age novel

The character, Isabel, transforms from a naïve American girl into a world-weary international woman of mystery.


  • The 1870s
  • England
  • Florence
  • Rome
  • New York


Main theme: Independence. The novel examines the obstacles Isabel encounters as she tries to become independent and self-reliant. She refuses marriage proposals that would limit her freedom and is driven by a constant rebellious need to prove that she is independent. Throughout the novel, the main character defines her identity through her independence. The theme of social conventions develops in opposition to the theme of independence, as the character is torn between the two by the end of the story.

Secondary themes:

  • American individualism vs. European social custom;
  • Femininity;
  • Possession;
  • Pride;
  • Suffering;
  • Love;
  • Deceit;
  • Masculinity.


Isabel Archer is a young American girl who possesses a strong personality and is very intelligent. After her father dies, her aunt, Mrs. Touchett, invites her on a year-long trip to Europe. Isabel accepts and in doing this, she refuses a marriage proposal from Caspar Goodwood. While in Europe, she refuses the marriage proposal from Lord Warburton, but a few years later ends up marrying Gilbert Osmond, an opportunistic art collector, who pursues her for her inheritance. She has a very unhappy marriage, but she is very committed to her social duties, so she refuses to leave her husband, even though Caspar Goodwood asks her to run away with him.


Characters presented in the analysis of the literary fragment should be adapted to the fragment itself.

  • Isabel Archer – protagonist, the Lady in the title. Her experience in Europe (wooed by an English lord, inherits a fortune, falls prey to a scheme of marrying her to a fortune-hunter) makes her confront the conflict between her desire for independence and commitment to social conventions. In the end, she chooses to remain in an unhappy marriage rather than to disregard social norms and leave her husband. We receive multiple perspectives on Isabel – the other characters contribute to explain the main character. Her portrait grows slowly, through her own realisation and through the contribution of other characters, emerging in the end as a woman, whose positive and negative experiences have brought her joy, sorrow, maturity, beauty and dignity.
  • Gilbert Osmond – a narcissistic and cruel man, a fortune hunter who seduces Isabel and marries her for her fortune. He is an art collector with no particular social status or wealth, who seeks the admiration of those around him. To him, Isabel is just another artifact that he possesses. He treats all those around (including his daughter) as objects used to fulfil his desires.
  • Madam Merle – a graceful and manipulative woman. She manipulates Isabel into marrying Osmond as part of a deceit scheme. She is actually Osmond’s lover and the mother of his daughter, a fact that is kept secret even to the daughter.
  • Ralph Touchett – Isabel’s cousin. He is ill throughout the novel and dies before the end. He acts as a spectator, as his disease prevents him from taking part in social events. He convinces Mr. Touchett to leave Isabel her fortune and tries to convince his cousin to remain independent. He acts as a moral centre throughout the novel, both for the characters and the reader.


  • Third-person limited omniscient – the account is subjective, we see the events from Isabel’s perspective;
  • The omniscient perspective means that the reader has an insight into the thoughts and feelings of the characters, but never judges them.


  • Critical, but sympathetic. The narrator is both distanced and interested in Isabel and her fate. He admires the character, but is critical of her choices and actions and asks the reader to be the same.


  • Descriptive, detailed – concentrated on people, relationships, feelings, places presented in great detail. The fictional world constructed by these means has a real feeling.
  • slow pacing, uneventful plot:
  • Long passages of descriptive prose in an elegant, balanced, clear manner;
  • Long phrases with lyrical twists;
  • Frank and fresh writing style;
  • Sense of humour in the details of the descriptions and the dialogue:
  • Uses the narrative gap/ ellipsis – skips some of the main events (the reader does not get details about Isabel’s marriage):
  • Uses free indirect discourse (becoming a forerunner of the stream-of-consciousness technique). Thus, the third person narrator goes in and out of the character’s mind, filtering the character’s thoughts, feelings and words.