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The Portrait of a Lady

Henry James

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Analytical Overview

Quiz

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?

For many of the novel's most important scenes, James utilizes an elliptical technique, which means literally that he simply does not narrate them. Instead, many of the most crucial moments of the novel are skipped over, and the reader is left to infer that they have occurred based on later evidence and their mention in peripheral conversation. Moments which are eluded from the novel include Osmond's proposal to Isabel, their wedding, and Isabel's decision to return to Rome after traveling to England for Ralph's funeral. In this way, James tends to skip over the moments in which Isabel chooses to sacrifice her freedom for Gilbert Osmond; this helps to create the sense that Osmond is a sinister figure, as though, in choosing to be with him, Isabel is placing herself beyond the reach of the reader.

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?

James's use of psychology in Portrait of a Lady enables him to unite his thematic exploration with his character portrayal. In short, the novel is an exploration of the conflict between individualism and social convention; James ensures that Isabel has a conscious commitment to individualism, but an unconscious desire for the comfort, safety, and stability of social custom. Isabel's upbringing was haphazard, and her father often left her to herself; this gave her a sense of intellectual independence, but it also made her long for a more secure environment. Additionally, Isabel's active imagination was nourished by her self-directed education in her grandmother's library. When she meets Gilbert Osmond, Isabel is attracted to the stability and direction his life seems to offer her, and her imagination enables her to overlook his obvious flaws—his arrogance, his narcissism, and his cruelty—and to create her own idyllic picture of him. In this way, Isabel allows her need for social convention to overcome her commitment to independence, and her marriage to Osmond becomes the tragic turning point in her life.

"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.

The answer you choose will largely depend on how you felt about the novel's thematic focus and its presentation of the idea of independence. A "yes" answer should focus on the fuzziness of Isabel's thinking about her own independence, especially about the lack of direction she seems to experience and her confusion about how to treat her own autonomy. (After rejecting Warburton, for instance, Isabel decides to do something remarkable with her life, but she never decides what it will be, and instead simply goes on a vacation with Mrs. Touchett and Madame Merle.) A "no" answer should try to extract a definition of the idea of "independence" from the novel, focusing on Isabel's desire to make her own decisions, her insistence on having room and time for her intellectual growth. A "no" answer might also locate the book's definition of independence in its portrayal of America, contrasting the individualistic spirit of America with the corrupt, socially rigid spirit of Europe.

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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