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In this lesson we discuss Henry James’s novel ”The Portrait of a Lady.” After a brief discussion of the plot, the characters, and several of the novel’s main themes, we end with a short quiz to test our knowledge.

Introduction to the Novel & The Author

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James was first published as a complete work in 1881. It was originally published as a serial that ran from 1880 to ’81. Despite being an American writer, Henry James frequently traveled to and wrote about Europe. James is known for being part of the literary realism movement, which means he sought to capture life as realistically as possible in his writing rather than romanticizing or exaggerating it.

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The Portrait of a Lady follows a young woman who journeys to Europe. Henry James wrote the novel when he was only 37, but it is considered by scholars to be one of his best.

Plot Summary

At the start of the novel, Isabel Archer, an American, is visiting extended family in England. During her visit, she rejects two marriage proposals, including one from Lord Warburton, who is a decent person, but toward whom Isabel does not feel romantically inclined. The other proposal, from Caspar Goodwood, tempts Isabel, but she worries that marriage will impede her personal freedom. When her ill uncle dies, he leaves Isabel a small fortune, which Isabel then uses to travel to Italy.

While in Florence, Italy, Isabel falls subject to a scam. Madame Merle, a woman she met at her uncle’s house back in England, and a man named Gilbert Osmond have conspired to trick Isabel into marrying Osmond so they can steal her fortune.Tragically, Isabel falls for Osmond and, together, they move to Rome. Osmond does not like Isabel, and the two quickly become unhappy.

While they are married, Isabel develops a friendship with Osmond’s daughter, Pansy. She does not know that the girl’s true mother is Madame Merle. Pansy is in love with an art collector, but her father wants her to marry Lord Warburton.

Isabel finds out that her cousin, Ralph, the son of the uncle who left her the fortune and her dear friend, is dying. She wants to travel to England to see her cousin before he dies. Osmond tries to stop her, but Isabel does not listen to him. After saying goodbye to Pansy, who she has recently learned is actually Madame Merle’s daughter and not the product of Osmond’s first marriage, Isabel travels to England.After Ralph dies, Isabel has a chance encounter with Caspar, the other man who proposed to her at the beginning of the novel. Caspar tries to convince Isabel to stay with him, but Isabel insists she has to return to Rome. The ending does not make it clear whether Isabel is returning to Rome because she is afraid her husband will force Pansy to marry Warburton against her will or if Isabel is only going back to take Pansy away from her father.

Character Summary

Isabel Archer is the main character of the novel and a young American woman. After rejecting two suitors, she eventually marries Gilbert Osmond, but they have an unhappy marriage.The Touchetts are Isabel’s extended family and also American, but they live in England. Mrs. Touchett is her aunt.

Mrs. Touchett’s son, Ralph, convinces his father, Mr. Touchett, to include Isabel in his will. When Mr. Touchett dies, Isabel inherits a small fortune. Ralph wants Isabel to have the money so that she will have financial freedom and not have to marry for money.Lord Warburton, an Englishman, proposes to Isabel.

She rejects him, though, because she does not feel anything for him. He is an honorable man and Ralph’s friend.Caspar Goodwood is an American. He is also one of Isabel’s suitors. Isabel likes him, but she rejects him because she is not willing to give up her freedom and marry anyone.

That is, until she meets Osmond.Friends with Mrs. Touchett, Madame Merle is a deceitful character and an American.

Together she and Gilbert Osmond conspire to convince Isabel to marry him so they can steal her fortune.Another American living abroad, Gilbert Osmond is Madame Merle’s partner-in-crime. The two characters also share a daughter, although Madame Merle does not claim to be her mother, since the child is the product of an affair.Despite being the daughter of Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle, Pansy Osmond has a close relationship with her stepmother, Isabel. She wants to marry for love, but her father wants her to marry for money.

Theme: Responsibility

Responsibility is a common theme in much of Henry James’ work, including The Portrait of a Lady.

It is a theme that is linked heavily with personal freedom and the idea of being financially responsible for oneself. Although Isabel inherits her wealth at the beginning of the novel, she has the opportunity to marry into money twice, both to decent men and, both times, she turns her suitors down. Even though she did not, strictly speaking, earn her original fortune herself, she seems to actively seek responsibility for her own life.When the man she marries turns out to be unpleasant, Isabel does not flee from the marriage.

Part of the reason she stays is because of her stepdaughter, Pansy. Isabel feels responsible for Pansy, especially when Isabel’s husband, Osmond, expresses his opposition to Pansy’s desire to marry a man she loves.At the end of the novel, Isabel rejects her own personal happiness (at least temporarily) to return to Rome. It is unclear whether or not she is returning to suffer out her marriage for Pansy’s sake or if she intends to force her husband to relinquish his control of his daughter, but either way it is clear that Isabel accepts responsibility not just for her own actions but also for her stepdaughter’s fate.

America Versus Europe

Another theme that shows up a lot in Henry James’s writing is the difference between America and Europe.

Sometimes also described as the New World versus the Old World, this theme was important to Henry James because America was undergoing so much change and many people from wealthy families, such as Henry James’s family, sought relief from the changes by going to Europe. That is why there are so many American characters living abroad in Europe in the novel.Equally purposeful is Henry James’ decision to make both Osmond and Madame Merle American. They could easily have been European, but by making Osmond and Madame Merle American, Henry James keeps the beauty and culture of Europe free from the taint of immorality. He does not have to sacrifice his personal opinion of Europe’s elegance.

Theme: Betrayal

Betrayal is another theme in the novel. Isabel rejects two suitors before she marries Osmond. She loves him, but he does not love her, unfortunately. Madame Merle suggests Osmond marry Isabel because she is rich. Osmond’s lack of genuine affection affects their relationship. Both Madame Merle and Osmond betray Isabel in separate ways. Merle betrays her as a friend and Osmond betrays her as a lover.

Isabel also betrays herself in the novel. She resists marriage because she thinks it will restrict her freedom. Barely any time passes before she allows herself to be swept off her feet by Osmond, though.

She betrays herself by giving in to marriage even though she has significant reservations about it.

Lesson Summary

The Portrait of a Lady is a novel written by Henry James. Originally published in the serial form, James’s novel was published in book form in 1881. The main character of the novel, Isabel Archer, travels in Europe after she inherits a small fortune. While in Europe, she falls for a scam organized by two other Americans.

As with many of Henry James’s novels, The Portrait of a Lady deals with themes of responsibility, the divide between America and Europe, and betrayal. The novel is an example of literary realism, a form that strives to capture life as it actually is without glorifying or romanticizing it. It is also considered by critics to be one of Henry James’s finest novels.

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson has concluded, make sure you’ve retained enough information to:

  • Recognize The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James as an example of literary realism
  • Identify the plot points of the novel
  • Describe the major characters
  • Compare the two major themes of responsibility and betrayal
  • Analyze the ‘America versus Europe’ theme

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