The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady Symbols, Allegory and Motifs


Often there are moments in the novel when one person looks at another as if he or she were a "portrait." This is representative of the attempt to read another person as one reads a work of art. What makes a particular piece of art valuable? Some of us might say it is the value a community bestows upon that work of art that makes it valuable. Similarly, Isabel Archer, the subject of "The Portrait of a Lady" is valuable because so many other people think she is an original. Other people though might say that a work of art is valuable for giving us the illusion of reality: a good work of art tells us something about society as it really is, and the truth of life. Osmond is the aesthete who creates an illusion that there is a truth, but this illusion is wholly created from the obfuscation of the lack of the truth. However, Isabel ultimately comes to know his true nature. She is the means by which the true emptiness of reality is revealed – and, hence, she is like a good work of art.


Osmond's house is described as a place with windows that do not communicate with the outside world. This symbolizes Osmond's own attitude toward society. He is reclusive. Later, Isabel feels like Osmond is the keeper of a house who likes to look down upon her from high above in his tower, from a window. This again, demonstrates Osmond's attitude, his worldview, as the desire to be superior to others.


This is a specific kind of art that is built not just for its style, but also for its function. Henry James often employs architectural metaphors to explore his own aesthetic competence. He wants his book to be built and constructed for a purpose, not just for the illusion of aesthetics, like Gilbert Osmond would have it, as he outlines in the preface. Osmond's house is introduced as a prison, which windows do not communicate with the outside world. Henry James' "house of fiction" in contrast is supposed to allow each person to have his own individual perspective on a particular scene.


When one person looks at another, he or she often compares the other person to an object that he or she knows is valuable. This allegorization of another person, comparing him or her to something that is inherently unlike it, is an indication of a modern problem. How do our relationships to objects and commodities end up determining our relationships to other people? For example, Osmond likes having many collector's items, and is unafraid to use other to obtain these items.


Gardencourt, the manor of the Touchetts, has a long, English history. By the opening of the book, it has passed into the hands of American expatriates. The house is a symbol, then, of the “Old vs. New World” motif. It was in a state of decrepitude when it was purchased, implying that the English people either no longer appreciate the aesthetic, and that the Americans are the ones who will inherit the rich cultural tradition of the past.