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The Portrait of a Lady

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The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James Apparently the fiction of Henry James appears to be about people at the center of high society. On closer examination, many of James’s characters struggle to enter high society from less fortunate backgrounds. A repeated theme in Henry James’s fiction is the culture clash between Americans and Europeans. As an American who spent most of his life in Europe, he was well-placed to see the contrasts between these two cultures.

For example, his novels Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady are based on this central idea.

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In both novels, the protagonist brings fresh American ideas in Europe. These are contrasted not only with the ideas of the Europeans, but also with those of Americans who lived in Europe for a long time. Henry James, Jr. , was born in New York City on April 15, 1843, the son of Henry James and Mary Robertson Walsh. James was raised in a home where money was not a concern.

His family was successful and cultured.

They often travelled in Europe and lived there long periods of time while henry was growing up. Henry James was educated by private tutors until he was twelve and was sent to study in Boulogne, Paris, Geneva, and Bonn. He entered in Harvard Law School, but a year later he left Harvard and started to think about a career in writing. He began writing reviews and critical essays which were published in The Atlantic Monthly, a prestigious American literary magazine. This magazine published his first novel Watch and Ward in 1871.

Four years later, he spent a year in Paris in the company of Zola, Flaubert and Turgenev. Then, he went to London and published his second novel Roderick Hudson(1875). After this, a number of novels followed: The American(1877), The Europeans(1878), Daisy Miller(1878), Washington Square(1881), The Portrait of a Lady(1881), The Bostonians(1886), The Turn of the Screw(1898), The Wings of the Dove(1902), The Ambassadors(1903) and The Golden Bowl(1904). In 1915 James became a British Citizen.

James admired America for its energy and innocence, but for himself he chose Europe for its lack of innocence. Europe provided an escape from the confines of a still Puritanical America. As Leon Edel, James’s great biographer, wrote, James decided that America “could not offer him the sense of freedom he had won for himself abroad”(Edel 537). Henry James received in 1916, on New Year’s Day the certificate of the Order of Merit – an order given to people for distinguished achievement.

He died in the same year on 28 of February in Rye, south-east England. The Portrait of a Lady is James’s best-known novel; the plot is almost the same as in his novel Daisy Miller, it tells the story of a young American woman abroad in Europe for the first time. The protagonist of this novel, Isabel Archer, demonstrates courage and determination in the company of people far more sophisticated than she and who would use her for the considerable fortunes she has inherited from her father and her uncle.

This novel explores the paradoxical nature of great wealth because Isabel is liberated from the need to be married as the possessor of considerable fortune, and therefore she is not bound by the prevailing social forces that served to constrict female freedom. During that period, in Victorian Europe and America most women had to choose between marriage and the convent, but Isabel is independently wealthy and so is free to remain single if she so desires. She remarks, “I don’t see what harm there is in my wishing not to tie myself.

I don’t want to begin my life by marrying. There are other things a woman can do” (James, Portrait of a Lady 139). Isabel trusts her own intelligence to go it alone: “I don’t need the aid of a clever man to teach me how to live” (146) and in the same time she has emotional support from her close friend, Henrietta Stackpole, who has herself chosen not to marry and from a friend Ralph Touchett, who does not push her into marriage, as he enjoys seeing her exercising her freedom.

Throughout the novel money passes from a source of freedom from Isabel to a source of her sorrow because she shares her great wealth with Gilbert Osmond in an attempt to help him realize his dreams as a fledgling artist and this marriage changes everything, as Isabel realizes that part of Osmond’s dream is his wish to control her completely. Money has given to Isabel not only freedom, but marital obligations with grave consequences. This is the typical Henry James scenario where the wealthy American Isabel Archer shares her fortune with the more “European” Osmond by marrying him.

Another important theme in the novel, except the question of money is the question of gender. Can a woman be as free as a man in a society such as the one portrayed by James? In addition to great wealth, Isabel possesses qualities that in Victorian period were only seen in men: high intelligence and a vivid imagination. “It was because she felt too wide awake, and wished to check the sense of seeing too many things at once. Her imagination was by habit ridiculously active; if the door were not opened to it, it jumped out of the window” (30).

James has the merit of having creating one of the most complex female characters in American fiction, Isabel remaining very popular among feminist critics. The novel has been criticized for allowing Isabel to remain in an unhappy marriage. Henry James makes the point that Isabel chooses to do so, at least in her own mind. First of all, she takes complete credit for marrying Osmond, against the advice of her friend Ralph and when she finds herself unhappily married, no one expects her to remain with her husband.

But Isabel believes that “when a woman had made such a mistake, there was only one way to repair it—to accept it. One folly was enough, especially when it was to last forever; a second one would not much set it off” (374). In stubborn insistence, Isabel remains in an unhappy condition of her own volition. James pushes the freedom of a woman to its extremes, at least for Victorian times. Another theme of the novel is the theme of freedom. Ralph Touchett suffers from a terminal disease and so feels he would rather leave his inheritance to someone who is free to enjoy it.

Ralph enjoys watching the freedom of Isabel, a freedom he has helped to create by passing his fortune along to her. Madame Merle is no freer than Ralph. She has disobeyed the social code by having an affair that produced a child, Pansy. Much like Ralph, she is unable to enjoy personal freedom, and so she focuses on finding a fortune for her daughter, Pansy. In terms of freedom, Gilbert Osmond is like none of the other characters. He does not bear the cross of gender or of physical disability but instead wills a life of idleness in the form of a failed artist.

James portrays in Osmond the incarnation of the decadent American expatriate, corrupted by Europe. Osmond desires to surround himself with European history, avoiding whatever is modern, industrious, and, in his view, barbaric. As a darker version of Winterbourne in Daisy Miller, Osmond has nearly erased his American identity. The greatest tension in the novel is between Osmond’s Europeanism and Isabel’s Americanisms. This quote describes the essence of the struggle: “Her notion of the aristocratic life was simply the union of great knowledge ith great liberty; the knowledge would give one a sense of duty, and the liberty the sense of enjoyment. But for Osmond it was altogether a thing of forms, a conscious, calculated attitude. He was fond of the old, the consecrated, and transmitted” (397). The “European” Osmond yearns for control. The American Isabel flies the flag of liberty coupled with a profound sense of moral duty. Whether or not she should stay with Osmond is open for debate, but the choice is one she makes freely, out of a sense of duty and a profound sense of pride and self-respect.

Isabel continues to the last in possession of a goodness that James saves for the Americans of his stories. References: Crumbley, Paul. Student’s Encyclopedia of Great American Writers, Volume II: 1830 to 1900. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2010. Edel, Leon. Henry James: A Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. New York: Signet Classic,1979. ——————————————–

Cite this The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady. (2016, Oct 30). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-portrait-of-a-lady/

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