Henry James – The Portrait of A Lady

Henry James wrote The Portrait of A Lady in what could be considered the early period of his career. There is a common theme in his works that can be filed under “his discovery and development of the international theme” — under this would fall the contrast between the naivety of the New World and the hardened experience of the Old World, but most importantly the study to the conflicting values of these two societies. Prior to Portrait of A Lady, James wrote a novella titled Daisy Miller. In this work, he experiments with the idea of an American girl abroad — but he does not explore her character, does not allow Daisy to mature into a woman but instead has her trapped into the confines of society and ultimately die. Through this he shows what can happen when the new and old world values collide.

In The Portrait Of A Lady, Henry James explores a new type of lady; a type of lady that develops despite the biological, social and psychological limitations that try to confine her. The novel could be defined as the journey through which Isabel Archer becomes a lady. She is transplanted to Europe from her native America; Isabel Archer is described to have candor, beauty, intelligence, and an independent spirit. In the article “The Prison of Womanhood,” Elizabeth Sabiston puts forth the argument that Isabel “is the victim of not only the conflict between herself and the external world, but also of a tension between opposites in her own character.” James does in fact showcase the opposites in her character, but he does this by putting an emphasis on the qualities that make her human, relatable even. He explores her struggle of becoming a woman as well as the innocence of an American abroad

According to Judith Montgomery in her article, “The American Galatea” Isabel hovers between “fulfillment of the self and fulfillment of the image.” But Isabel cannot be ostracized into something as simple as an image, and her choices are not motivated simply by her desire to keep up appearances; accepting Isabel’s own expectations of herself, she makes her choices. At the beginning of the novel, Isabel Archer is a young woman full of the certainty of success in her life, of pride, and sure of her free will. Early on in the text it can be seen that Isabel’s experience of life is practically non-existent and that she is easy to deceive. This is because she has had an isolated childhood in America; Isabel can be described as being articulate but her ideas are only half formed and not tested because she is “raised in isolation.” A characteristic that very much defines Isabel is her romantic and abstract mind that is covered by layers of rationality. She wants to be surrounded by only the most beautiful and graceful thoughts, and “had a fixed determination to regard the world as a place of brightness.” Isabel can be perceived as an interesting and complicated character because James uses her to present the growth and development of a new type of lady.

It can be said that The Portrait of A Lady actually begins with the portrait of a girl. For the first half of the novel, Isabel Archer is described as a child. She is described as an “independent young lady… who at first sight looked pretty.” From the start, she is portrayed as being fresh, young and naïve but at the same time have a strong imagination and a confidence that is extremely alluring. The elements of a new type of woman are inherently obvious in the descriptions of Isabel. Especially since she is dissimilar to her sisters in the matter that she isn’t yet married and values her independence more than finding the right man to settle down with. The reason why Isabel can do this is because of the way the author has made her free from constraints such as her parents; through this James expresses the limitations that women face because of biological, societal and psychological constraints that are placed upon these girls at a young age, so they grow up believing that women are inferior to men and therefore do not question the system.

Isabel believes that she is in control and everyone else helps to support that false sense of security because they do not realize how vulnerable she actually is; this could be because of how she is perceived to be vocal and opinionated; James portrays her as having the independent spirit of a typical independent girl and “her meager knowledge, her inflated ideals” as well as her “confidence at once innocent and dogmatic” help contribute to this; it is these qualities within Isabel that put her in a false position of power.

Through Isabel, James shows the tension of the times and symbolizes how that tension impacts the “new lady.” Isabel although follows the rules of propriety but she is not prone to the hysterics and theatrics that are present in the other female characters written in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. James portrays Isabel as being a woman of spirit, one who does not break down in the face of adversity. Henry James was the writer who popularized the term “New Woman” through his character of Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady. His idea of a New Woman referred to women who “exercised control over their own lives be it personal, social, or economic.”

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