Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Dolce Belezza is hosting a read along of The Portrait of a Lady, and has written a short summary of the plot here. As always with the novels of Henry James, the ending holds more questions than answers (compare The Turn of the Screw). Belezza has two questions: why did Isabel Archer marry Gilbert Osmond? Why did she plan to return to him on the very last page? Two relevant questions and I am looking forward seeing what the other read alongs will answer. Here are some of my thoughts.

Why did she marry?

Although she, unknowingly, was manipulated into the marriage, it is not the whole answer. She already had two offers of marriage and friends and relatives were much for both of them. However, she refused. She had clearly stated that she did not want to marry, but travel around the world. She wanted to have an independent life, settle down somewhere nice and live her life as she chooses. It was definitely easier after she came into the money, and would have been difficult without money. It is not clear how she intended to support herself in the latter case.

As for women at the time, her future was clear. She should marry a nice young man and settle down. She had other ideas. Both offers of marriage was too much like the expected prospects and I think that is why she refused them. When Osmond came by, he was different. He had another kind of life, his ideas attracted her, she loved his lovely daughter and the sense of a life in bliss. As we know life is not always what it seems like. I think that she actually was in love with Osmond in her own way. Maybe not so much with the man as with the idea of his life. Unfortunately, for her, he did not reveal all of his ideas, or she just did not grasp them in time. She was part of the beauty he admired in a building or a painting, but she did not see that his idea of the marriage, apart from the money, was to acquire another rare piece to show off.

Why did she go back to him in the end?
I really thought she would not, but Henry James is Henry James. He has to upset our minds and maybe ask ourselves questions. She had a choice, she had the funds to live on. Maybe, she saw it as a failure on her part. Everybody had advised her against the marriage, and maybe she just wanted to show that she knew what she was doing. During the novel we hear her say that she was taught to stand up for her actions, to be loyal to the decisions she has made. I think one of the reasons going back is that she promised the daughter to come back for her. In her mind it was possibly a very good reason, to save her from her father's grasp, to help her make a life for herself. To marry someone she loves, instead of being held captive by her father. Maybe she thought she could save one woman if she gave up her own freedom.

I am a fan of Henry James and really loved the book. Although it seems not much is happening in the quiet way which he tells the story, but there actually are a lot of things going on. I would be somewhat irritated with Isabel from time to time. She seemed to be a young lady who knew her mind and would always stand up for herself.  In the end, as regards the marriage to Osmond she does not. I find this bit a little out of character. I am looking forward reading John Banville's Mrs Osmond and see how he interprets the story.

Looking forward reading your views on the novel.


  1. I agree that she married not wholly out of manipulation by Madame Merle. Both you and Tom, of Wuthering Expectations, point to the fact that she is a wonderfully independent and stubborn woman, one who is intent on making her own choices.

    I was so glad to have Banville's book to pick uo following this one; he has a writing style which so closeley fits with James', and he takes these important questions one strp farther. He shows us what becomes of Pansy, and what Isabel does next regarding both Serena Merle and Gilbert. I highly recommend it. Thanks for reading, and posting, along with me! xo

    1. I found it a little bit out of character that she does not have more independence in her marriage. Let's see what Banville says. I have just started reading it.