The Portrait of a Lady
Study Questions and Essay Topics
Describe the elliptical technique James often uses in his narration. What is a narrative ellipsis? How does James employ the technique? What effect does his frequent skipping forward have on the novel as a whole?
Portrait of a Lady, as its title would suggest, is largely devoted to the character of Isabel Archer. How does James use his psychological portrayal of Isabel to justify her decision to surrender her treasured independence in order to marry Osmond?
"The Portrait of a Lady is consistently focused on the idea of Isabel Archer's independence: whether she has it, whether she is true to it, whether she betrays it, and whether it is more important than her social duty. But the novel never really defines what "independence" means, and as a result, it lacks thematic focus." Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Defend your answer.
Compare and contrast Isabel's three suitors, Gilbert Osmond, Caspar Goodwood, and Lord Warburton. How are they alike? What are their important differences? What ideas do they each symbolize? How does Isabel respond to each of them, and why does she respond to them as she does? What light do they cast on Isabel's relation to the idea of romance?
With particular attention to the characters of Henrietta Stackpole and Mrs. Touchett, what does the novel's position seem to be with regard to feminism? Is Portrait of a Lady a feminist book in any way or ultimately a conservative novel?
Describe the character of Madame Merle. What role does she play in the novel? Where does she seem to fit on the spectrum between personal independence and social conformity? Is she ultimately a villain, or does she have qualities that enable the reader to sympathize with her behavior?
Discuss James's use of geography as an object of symbolism in the novel. How do particular places take on thematic qualities? What symbolic trajectory does James chart by having Isabel travel from Albany to London to Florence to Rome?
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