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James's first idea for The Portrait of a Lady was simple: a young American woman confronting her destiny, whatever it might be. Only then did he begin to form a plot to bring out the character of his central figure. This was the uncompromising story of the free-spirited Isabel losing her freedom—despite (or because of) suddenly coming into a great deal of money—and getting "ground in the very mill of the conventional." It is a rather existentialist novel, as Isabel is very committed to living with the consequences of her choice with integrity but also a sort of stubbornness.
The richness of The Portrait is hardly exhausted by a review of Isabel's character. The novel exhibits a huge panorama of trans-Atlantic life, a far larger canvas than any James had previously painted. This moneyed world appears charming and leisurely but proves to be plagued with treachery, deceit, and suffering.
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