The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady Literary Elements


Psychological Realism / The Novel

Setting and Context

England (near London) and Italy (Rome and Florence); 1870s; expatriate (American) upper-class culture in Europe

Narrator and Point of View

The narrator is a third person, and is not a character himself in the novel. He selectively chooses to narrate from within the psychological consciousnesses of his characters, mostly from the point of view of Isabel Archer. He also from time to time tells us what goes on in the mind of some of the other characters, such as Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond, although we usually do not see their perspectives.

Tone and Mood

The narrator has an ironic distance in his tone at times, but he also seems to empathize with Isabel Archer's point of view. He objectively points out some of Isabel's flaws, but he also believes in her essential value as an interesting worthwhile character. The mood of the story changes from setting to setting. Gardencourt is a hopeful place in the beginning, and Florence is full of the riches of life and beauty. However, Gilbert Osmond's home, located near Florence, is repressive and dismal. Rome is initially depicted as a place of action and events: where surprising changes comes about. However, when Isabel and Osmond move there, it becomes a place of mournful superficiality.

Protagonist and Antagonist

Isabel is the protagonist, and her main antagonists are Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle.

Major Conflict

Isabel wants to express her own ideas and independence in life. She then rejects two very good, rich suitors, even though she has no money of her own. She then surprisingly inherits a lot of money from her rich uncle. The main question of the novel is: what will Isabel do in her life? She ends up though being tricked into a loveless marriage rather than asserting her independence. She falls prey to fortune hunters. Her marriage is like a prison. The question of the second part of the novel then is: will Isabel stay true to her marriage? How will she escape her misfortune? Or, will she recognize her duty to her husband and his daughter instead?


The climax of the novel occurs in Chapter 42. Unlike other novels, where the climax takes primarily in terms of external events, all of the tension of the novel gathers in Isabel's mind. The scene consists only of her thinking through the motivations of the various people around her. It opens with Isabel absorbed in looking at the situation as Osmond has presented it to her. She has an unexpected recognition that she does in fact have an influence on Lord Warburton. She wonders if he has a desire to please her. The answer frightens her, because she realizes that if he does want to please Isabel, then it is likely that he would marry Pansy for the sake of his love for Isabel. She thinks it impossible that he would be in love with both of them.


When Isabel meets Osmond, she is uncharacteristically silent and un-opinionated. She is more interested in gaining an accurate impression of him than of forming her own opinion of him -- this seems to be the exact opposite of her usual approach to people. This foreshadows to us that Osmond will be perceived differently than all her other suitors.

When Mr. Touchett discusses giving half of Ralph's fortune to Isabel, he wonders if it is a moral thing to do. This foreshadows that the dilemma of the novel will end up being a test of Isabel's moral strength.

When Isabel finds out that certain behaviors are frowned upon, she is interested because it is a piece of knowledge -- not one that she will necessarily conform to, but rather one that will allow her to understand her options. This foreshadows the quality of her stubbornness: she will not behave as others want her to, but she wants to know how others want her to behave. These others will perceive her behavior though as simply doing the opposite of what they would like her to do.

The fact that Isabel is interested in portraiture and painting when she arrives at Gardencourt foreshadows that she will be interested in European culture and art, as symbolized by Gilbert Osmond.


Ralf Normann has identified several methods in which James gives the appearance of an ambiguity - and these are examples of how James simultaneously uses an understatement and an overstatement. In this novel, there is the "dismissed alternative" in which a person denies a situation, but in doing so, that person is actually admitting that the situation exists. Then there is the "structural overelaboration" in which characters attribute words to other characters by thinking it is "as if" they said something. So for example, we are told: "Isabel was unfortunately as sure that Pansy thought Mr. Rosier the nicest of all the young men—as sure as if she had held an interview with her on the subject." James is here emphasizing how little has happened, and how much Isabel has been able to surmise from so little.


Paradise Lost is eluded to on p. 273 - in which it is declared that the "world lay before her." Paradise Lost is a poem written by John Milton. It is a biblical story about Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It is an allusion to a religious worldview, but this book is thoroughly secular. However, Henry James seems to be posing the question of moral problems from this secular perspective in terms similar to ones that reference biblical interpretation. Is there really such a thing as evil in the world?

The Married Women's Property Act of 1882 was passed in England around the time that James wrote this novel. This law allowed for women to some property in their own right. It allowed for them to take the first steps towards establishing a legal identity. However, when the novel takes place, this act was certainly not in effect. James' decision to set the novel during the 1870s allows for him to explore the conditions leading up to the act.

The name of the Touchetts' house, Gardencourt, is an allusion to George Eliot's Grandcourt in Daniel Deronda. Grandcourt is a terrible place in Eliot's book, whereas Gardencourt offers a more hopeful vision of women's opportunities.

The preface alludes to Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing in talking about how the novel is a form that makes "ado about something." Perhaps James is suggesting that there is really nothing to Isabel Archer in herself to make her interesting - there is just the fact that people make such "ado" about her that makes her into "something" rather than "nothing."


See section on imagery. James' imagery is notably difficult to picture in one's mind: he often uses abstract concepts (rather than concrete details) to describe physical characteristics of places and people, as if that would actually give us a better idea of what a person looked like.


Isabel Archer is both very perceptive, and very blind. So she naively does not notice when others have bad intentions, but she is capable of seeing the good in a character like Countess Gemini, who nobody else likes. "The love of knowledge coexisted in her mind with the finest capacity for ignorance," the narrator tells us.


There is a close parallelism between Henry James' different novels. So for example, in The Wings of a Dove, a rich, ill heiress is tricked into marrying the lover of another woman, so that the lover and this other woman will have the heiress' fortune when she dies. We can see this story as combining Isabel (the rich heiress) and Ralph (the ill one) into one character, and enacting a very similar kind of plot.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

The various characters of The Portrait of a Lady, as Susan Manning has pointed out (see works cited), might be seen as metonymical representatives of the American spirit. Isabel Archer shows the originality and freshness of American possibility, Henrietta Stackpole the independence and no-nonsense attitude, and Caspar Goodwood, the brute nature of a capitalistic spirit.


Houses tended to be personified, insofar as they represent the person who lives within them. They are presented as having "eyes." Money is also given a kind of agency in the novel, where it can be seen as determining character motivation.

We might also read Isabel Archer as a personification of a "national" character of the American.