It is notable that when James describes a setting, it is actually very difficult to picture the image he has in mind. So on the first pages of the novel, at Gardencourt, we are given the image of persons "upon the lawn of an old English country-house" in what the narrator calls "the perfect middle" of a "splendid summer afternoon." The scene "expresses a sense of leisure." Notice how relative all of the adjectives are to the speaker -- "perfect" "splendid" and "sense of leisure" do not actually tell us much about what is physically there, but it leaves more up to the reader’s imagination. Whatever qualities we may think are splendid or perfect can be imparted to the scene, as we so desire.
Abstract Ideas to Describe Images
James often uses abstract ideas to describe the physical qualities of one image. So for example, Isabel thinks of Gardencourt as: "gratifying a need," with a "sense of well-ordered privacy," "in the centre of a 'property.'" We do not usually think of "needs" and "privacy" and "property" as things we can picture in our heads. However, rather than giving us a picture by describing physical details, James gives us these conceptions.
Windows as Eyes
The windows of houses are often depicted as if they are the "eyes" of a house. This tells us something about the nature of the house, how communicative and sociable the people inside it are. For example, Osmond's house is described as having "heavy lids, but no eyes."
Descriptions of Pansy offer very vivid imagery as to her weak nature - she is often seen meekly preparing tea or offering up timid tokens of affection. Even her very name is an image: she is a soft, innocent flower and very weak willed. Osmond’s overpowering will easily destroys her weak nature.
Ruins of the Forum in Rome
When Isabel is on a visit to Rome at the beginning of Chapter 27, she is wandering alone amongst the ruins of the Forum. Noticeably, the description of what she sees is actually a mirror image of the landscape of her mind. As she sees some people digging for some ruins of the past, she seems to almost conjure Lord Warburton -- an element of her past -- out of thin air. In this way it both foreshadows what will happen and it crystallizes what Isabel seeks to reflect upon in order to figure out what she will do in life. Whenever James describes a scene, it is more interesting for him insofar as it offers a chance to reflect on the activity of a person's thoughts, rather than being a realistic picture of the world.
The Portrait of a Lady Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Portrait of a Lady is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.