The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady Quotes and Analysis

The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million--a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbors are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine.

ix (Preface)

Henry James here expresses the idea that fiction should deal with different people's points of views. Everyone has a different perspective on things, and also they have different motivations for their actions. He wants to honor the individuality and uniqueness of people's ways of looking at people. However, he also recognizes that these people are limited by their own points of view -- their vision does not "open straight upon life." This can make them biased. For example, Isabel often is willfully ignorant of some things she does not want to know, while she is very perceptive in regards to other things.

That's very crude of you. When you've lived as long as I have you'll see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There's no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we're each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances. What shall we call our 'self'? Where does it begin? Where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us--and then it flows back again. I know a large part of myself is in the clothes I choose to wear. I've a great respect for things! One's self--for other people--is one's expression of one's self; and one's house, one's furniture, one's garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps--there things are all expressive.


Madame Merle tells Isabel that she believes a person is made up of his or her possessions -- "I've a great respect for things!" she declares. This is a superficial version of the idea of the self, but it also has some truth to it. Merle is expressing the idea that one is nothing without the things one owns. A person is the equivalent of his or her expression. However, James, in making Merle the superficial villain who disguises appearances, wants to emphasize the importance of values that goes behind such appearances. While he is acknowledging that a person needs means to express him or herself, as Isabel needs to meet other people and have practical experiences to express her ideas, he wants to show that she has original values and ideas of her own. In other words, we can read the novel as promoting the idea that a person owes his or her own personality to the circumstances in which he or she grew up, and that without circumstances and things around oneself, one has no means for expressing oneself. There is a fine balance between recognizing this debt and submitting oneself entirely to superficial values.

"It was not so much what he said and did, but rather what he withheld, that marked him for her as by one of those signs as the highly curious that he was showing her on the underside of old plates and in the corner of sixteenth century drawings: he indulged in no striking deflections from common usage, he was an original without being an eccentric."


Gilbert Osmond is an expert at creating the illusion that he has some original values beneath his appearances. This is why Isabel falls for Osmond: she believes that beneath his exterior there lies some valuable essential secret as to how he judges others and particular objects. This quote is important because it shows that Gilbert Osmond is limited to the materials of convention. He has to praise the same kinds of objects as everyone else, he uses the same idioms as everyone else, and he ascribes to same kind of traditions as everyone else. Gilbert Osmond is comparable to a literary author here, because authors must use language that everyone understands in order to express an original idea. James though, through Osmond's character, is hinting at the fact that authors often achieve only appearance of originality through obfuscation.

"What could be a happier gift in a companion than a quick, fanciful mind which saved one repetitions and reflected one's thought on a polished, elegant surface? … Osmond's egotism had never taken the crude form of desiring a dull wife; this lady's intelligence was to be a silver plate, not an earthen one--a plate that he might heap up with ripe fruits, to which it would give a decorative value."


The working of Osmond's mind is given through some tactile imagery here, as the narrator speaks through Osmond's point of view. This metaphor is significant because it can be attributed either to the narrator (who lends his expressions to the character's otherwise vague, unformulated thoughts and desires) or to the character (who may be literally thinking in these terms). James is being purposefully ambiguous here. However, he makes it seem as if these images are attributable to Osmond's imagination insofar as he extends the metaphor -- not only is Isabel's mind a "silver plate" but it is a plate upon which Osmond can "heap up with ripe fruits." This is characteristic of Osmond's personality because to him it does not matter who Isabel really is as a person, but it matters only that he can use her for her own purposes.

"The free, keen girl had become quite another person; what he saw was the fine lady who was supposed to represent something. What did Isabel represent? Ralph asked himself; and he could only answer by saying that she represented Gilbert Osmond."


Isabel had shown much promise for representing an original idea in the beginning of the novel, and now Ralph has found some disappointment insofar as Isabel serves only to represent another person, whose values he believes do not even exist. This quote emphasizes in what way Isabel is like a "portrait" - a figure of a likeness of a real person. She is supposed to represent a person who existed in reality, but oftentimes portraits are attributed more to the skill and ideas of the original artist than to the person who existed in them. For example, we think of da Vinci's masterpiece Mona Lisa as evidence of his genius, rather than telling us something about the reality of the woman in the portrait. Thus, through Ralph, James is providing a critique of the way we generally look at aesthetic objects.

But for her money, as she saw today, she would never have done it. And then her mind wandered off to poor Mr. Touchett, sleeping under English turf, the beneficent author of infinite woe! For this was the fantastic fact. At bottom her money had been a burden, had been on her mind, which was filled with the desire to transfer the weight of it to some other conscience, to some more prepared receptacle. What would lighten her own conscience more effectually than to make it over to the man with the best taste in the world?


In what way does a medium determine a message? Here, Isabel realizes that she had a new medium for expressing herself, money, which ended up determining the actions of how she would decide what she should do in life. Her life would have been very different had money not been available to her. It is interesting to make a comparison between money in the novel and language, as a medium for expression, for the novelist. Consider James' style - it often seems very ornate, resplendent with excessive metaphors. His later style, as for example in The Golden Bowl, will make apparent how overburdened James is with his own gift. "The method seems perverse: 'Say it out, for God's sake,' they cry, 'and have done with it," William James wrote to his brother of his novel The Golden Bowl. Thus this quote demonstrates the way one may change what one has to say based off of the metaphors one has at one's disposal to express the original idea.

The finest--in the sense of being the subtlest--manly organism she had ever known had become her property, and the recognition of her having but to put out her hands and take it had been originally an act of devotion. She had not been mistaken about the beauty of his mind; she knew that organ almost perfectly now. She had lived with it, she had lived in it almost--it appeared to have become her habitation… She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation. Osmond's beautiful mind gave it neither light nor air; Osmond's beautiful mind indeed seemed to peep down from a small high window and mock at her.


Osmond's mind here is compared to an architectural construction that keeps Isabel trapped inside of it. He does this by not allowing her to have her own views on things - expecting her to represent all of his own opinions. Compare this image to James' "house of fiction" in the preface. Is James like Osmond himself -- trapping Isabel into an architectural construction entirely of his own making, putting her into a situation where she will necessarily have to express herself in a certain way? In his preface, he expresses beliefs that the house of fiction ought to have many windows out of which certain people can look and have perspectives of their own. Osmond's mind allows only his own perspectives, allows only for mockery of Isabel.

She asked herself, with an almost childlike horror of the supposition, whether to this intimate friend of several years the great historical epithet of wicked were to be applied. She knew the idea only by the Bible and other literary works; to the best of her belief she had had no personal acquaintance with wickedness. She had desired a large acquaintance with human life, and in spite of her having flattered herself that she cultivated it with some success this elementary privilege had been denied her. Perhaps it was not wicked--in the historic sense--to be even deeply false; for that was what Madame Merle had been--deeply, deeply, deeply.


This quote reflects the melodramatic nature of the novel. The plot of the novel concerns a woman who is deceived into marrying a man who uses her for her money. This is the stuff of soap operas: while certainly in real life people marry for money, very rarely do we get the kind of intricate plot that Madame Merle has woven happening in real life. Peter Brooks has written about how the melodrama is the genre of the "missing middle," where every action is posed as if it were a choice between heightened moral alternatives, good and evil (cf. works cited). Notably, Osmond never physically harms Isabel, nor does he do anything that is obviously morally reprehensible, but he is made to seem "evil," just as Madame Merle is made to seem "wicked" here. However, in a secular world, these polarities have no obvious foundation -- in a world that does not interpret everything in terms of God's moral system, that does not necessarily use the Bible as its ultimate reference point for morality, distinguishing between good and evil can become more difficult.

His last words were not a command, they constituted a kind of appeal; and though she felt that any expression of respect on his part could only be a refinement of egotism, they represented something transcendent and absolute, like the sign of the cross or the flag of one's country. He spoke in the name of something sacred and precious--the observance of a magnificent form. They were as perfectly apart in feeling as two disillusioned lovers had ever been; but they had never yet separated in act.


This quotation comes from Isabel's confrontation with Osmond, when she decides to go to England to visit her dying cousin. Osmond believes Isabel should not go because she has too many duties as a wife, and that she should honor her obligation as a wife before she needs to honor her obligations as a cousin. This quotation sums up how the two personalities clash: they are not physically violent with each other, but psychologically violent. It concerns the power of one person's will to take over another's. Osmond believes that marriage is a social "form" that is the most precious, and that one's "honor" depends upon the observance of this form. Isabel is noting how this social form does not correspond to how the husband and wife really treat each other in their relationship -- they do not really act as if they had duties to one another -- but it only gives the appearance of their acting in unison to others. There is cynicism as to the meaning of marriage in society expressed here.

Isabel saw it all as distinctly as if it had been reflected in a large clear glass. It might have been a great moment for her, for it might have been a moment of triumph. That Madame Merle had lost her pluck and saw before her the phantom of exposure—this in itself was a revenge, this in itself was almost the promise of a brighter day. And for a moment during which she stood apparently looking out of the window, with her back half-turned, Isabel enjoyed that knowledge. On the other side of the window lay the garden of the convent; but this is not what she saw; she saw nothing of the budding plants and the glowing afternoon. She saw, in the crude light of that revelation which had already become a part of experience and to which the very frailty of the vessel in which it had been offered her only gave an intrinsic price, the dry staring fact that she had been an applied handled hung-up tool, as senseless and convenient as mere shaped wood and iron. All the bitterness of this knowledge surged into her soul again; it was as if she felt on her lips the taste of dishonour. There was a moment during which, if she had turned and spoken, she would have said something that would hiss like a lash. But she closed her eyes, and then the hideous vision dropped. What remained was the cleverest woman in the world standing there within a few feet of her and knowing as little what to think as the meanest. Isabel's only revenge was to be silent still—to leave Madame Merle in this unprecedented situation.


This quote is an example of how Henry James focuses on the mind's eye instead of actual physical descriptions of settings. This demonstrates the psychological realism of the book. Isabel's defining trait is her lucidity. However, in the beginning of the book, the narrator tells us that her ability to clearly see a problem is also co-existent with her willful blindness and naiveté concerning people's malicious motives. She shows development here when she finally sees Madame Merle for what she is: deceptive. She begins to understand how other people's psychological motivations work, and this helps her analyze the situation she has gotten herself into. She becomes a heroine insofar as Merle's knowledge of Isabel's lucidity makes Merle banish herself -- Isabel needs to only be silent to accuse Merle. Moral action in the novel, in other words, is accomplished not by a positive gesture, but simply by the act of knowing.