The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How are women and their situations portrayed in this novel? Does the author take a critical stance towards the opportunities provided to them?

    Henry James depicts a modern world in which opportunities for women are beginning to expand, as represented by Henrietta Stackpole's occupation, but also in which women often can only exercise their talents in traditional ways. Isabel shows great promise for doing something in her life, but her idea of a great action is to marry a man with good taste, who can spend her money well. She also has little opportunity to divorce honorably.

  2. 2

    Describe the nature of Isabel and Osmond's relationship.

    Isabel initially meets Osmond and finds herself surprisingly intimidated by him. Osmond thinks because she is so quiet that they will get along well. He thinks he can mold her into saying whatever he wants. Isabel though resists this, and shows that she has an independence all of her own, when they finally marry. The violence Osmond imposes on her is entirely psychological, “beneath the surface.” Isabel believes she knows what he wants, and she does not want the same thing, but she feels him imply her insufficiency.

  3. 3

    Weigh the moral issues involved in Ralph Touchett's gift to Isabel.

    Ralph Touchett's father tells him that it may be immoral to give a girl who has no head for money, and who has never expected to have wealth, so much money. Ralph shows that he is a kind person who is interested in Isabel's future, and he has good intentions in giving her some money. However, Isabel is deceived as to where the money really came from. She believes it was her uncle's grand idea to give her so much. This makes it harder for Isabel to know what to do with the money. She feels it is a burden on her life because no one is there to give her guidance as to what to do with it.

  4. 4

    Analyze the ending of the novel. Does Isabel make a moral decision?

    Goodwood's forced kiss at the end of the novel and his speech to Isabel suggests that he thinks it is perfectly acceptable to begin an extramarital affair with her. Isabel however, fights against this possibility. Her running away from him suggests that she is willing to accept the consequences of her marriage to Osmond once and for all, and upholds the honor of her actions of marrying Osmond. She wants to uphold a conventional notion of duty. This is representative of Isabel's final moral action. We can also read the ending though as Isabel's weakness rather than her strength. Every time she has a scene with Caspar Goodwood, she has a very physical reaction to him. It is as if she is attracted to him physically but cannot accept this about herself. Goodwood thus seems to represent her unconscious desires from which she runs away.

  5. 5

    The novel skips over many years of events (Isabel's first year of marriage) and describes them only from an outside perspective. What effect does this have for how we read the novel?

    It allows us to see that an action is most important in its consequences rather than in the act itself. It is only from a retrospective of evaluation of the event that we can determine whether a decision is a good one or not. The novelist slowly shows us what has occurred in Isabel's mind in order to show us that she realizes only now that she has made a mistake.