The Portrait of a Lady

A Woman’s Journey from North America to Europe in The Portrait of a Lady

In psychology, one of the most frequently debated topics deals with the issue of environmental and societal impact on one’s upbringing. It is commonly believed that society plays a tremendous role in how one behaves and how one readily conforms to the environment he is raised in. For instance, in a society where propriety is esteemed upon, one is expected to behave in a well-fashioned manner. In Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer, the novel’s protagonist, serves as an epitome of one who mirrors her surroundings. As she travels from North America to Europe, her behaviors, perspectives, values, and desires begin to change greatly. Through the utilization of formal elements, such as imagery, language, structure, and tone, Henry James clearly delineates Europe as a country of sophistication and decadence, and North America as a country of innocence and individualism.

In the opening lines of the novel, James captures the essence of the European social conventions with this image: “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea (17).” James takes a simple social custom of English tea ceremony and embellishes the tone and language...

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