The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady Themes

Old World vs. New World

Henry James often addresses the difference between the "old world," or European values and culture, and the "new world," or American values and culture. Literature and art are often considered to be places where a culture can showcase its sophistication, traditions, and values in their highest form. For Europeans during the mid to late 19th century, it was a novel idea that Americans were developing a higher culture capable of producing works of great literature. By the time The Portrait of a Lady was written though, several American authors had already gained respect in the Old World, such as Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman. Yet, the question remained: what cultural ideas and values did Americans represent? Could such new ideas change European culture? The literary tradition associated with the Old World at the time was after all, in a state of decadence. The character of Lord Warburton represents this. He has many political ideas about revolution and change, but he benefits from the very institution against which he rebels in thought. Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond, though both are Americans, are examples of Old World values -- they are Americans who have come to Europe and fully adapted to the lifestyle of the Europeans. (For example, it is explicitly mentioned that Madame Merle is of the "old world" and Gilbert Osmond is likened to convention itself.) When Isabel Archer arrives in the first scene at Gardencourt, the men are discussing the possibility of women bringing new ideas with them. Isabel Archer represents American modernity and culture. When she walks in, she is the materialization of the hope that a fresh perspective on things could help revive old European traditions that are decadent and rigidly formal. However, in the book, she falls under the power of an American who has committed to Old World values; she falls for the illusion that there is a real system of value behind his aestheticism.


Gilbert Osmond is the villain of the novel. He is characterized by his fine taste and fine vision, but, practically speaking, he is incapable of taking action in life. Although he is a very capable curator of his own home, he is not even very good at making art himself. For example, Madame Merle, who also is known to have very fine taste, dislikes his drawings. Thus he is the characterization of a person who lives aesthetically by collecting objects, by doing nothing in life but looking and judging things. He does not create anything. Isabel however, originally believes that there is a system of value behind the way in which Gilbert Osmond judges things. She only later learns that he is only superficial, and he creates the illusion that there is some inscrutable secret behind his judgments that only he has access to. Because she believes that there is some sort of value behind his appearances, she believes she is "doing" something in enabling him to continue living as an aesthete by giving him money. Recall that all characters in the novel are constantly discussing what Isabel Archer will "do" in life. How will she exercise her ideas? She ends up believing that marrying Gilbert Osmond is a way of helping him exercise his ideas. This ultimately ends up being her "idea": helping another person to express himself. However, the truth comes out that he has no ideas; he just likes appearing as if he does have higher ideas by mystifying other people. Henry James is critiquing this kind of inactive life of aesthetic judgment without moral grounding. For more on the cultural context of aestheticism surrounding the novel, see Freedman's book in the works cited.

Freedom and Independence

What does it mean to express one's own freedom? How can one go about expressing it? This is an issue in the novel. Isabel enjoys her independence, and one of our first characterizations of her is from Mrs. Touchett, who in a telegram describes her as "quite independent." (8) The telegram represents the difficulty of finding the means for an expression of "freedom": because the telegram is such a limited means of communication, it is hard for Mr. Touchett and Ralph to understand what Mrs. Touchett means when she says Isabel is independent. Does she mean Isabel is financially independent? Spiritually? Unmarried? The telegram then represents how language limits our ability to express the meaning of freedom, because we are dependent on the limited nature of signs for expression. To express the concept of freedom, we are dependent upon a system of convention that other people agree upon: language. Thus, in expressing freedom -- our independence from the world and others -- we necessarily show our dependence. This is dramatized in the telegram's lack of clarity, which is an even more restricted method of communication than language in general. Likewise, Isabel's grand "idea" that she would like to express throughout the book seems to be the concept of freedom, but she has no means to do so other than rejecting the opinions and desires of others. So she expresses her freedom by turning down Caspar Goodwood and Lord Warburton's marriage proposals. Freedom is expressible only negatively. Ralph believes he is simply providing her with the "means" to better express her freedom of thought when he gives her half of his inheritance. However, this means of expression, money, ends up determining the events of the novel, and the content of her idea. The medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan says: the way she expresses herself ends up determining what she has to express.


This novel deals with the mistreatment of other people. Madame Merle keeps hidden the nature of her relationship to Osmond from Isabel, and she also calculates such that Isabel will end up marrying Osmond. She does this for Pansy. There is the suggestion that Madame Merle has treated Isabel only as a "tool" for an end in the scene where Isabel confronts Merle in the convent. We can understand this as a Kantian ethical formulation: one should not treat others as means, but rather only as ends in themselves. That is, we should not use others to achieve something we would like, but we need to recognize the way they have their own desires in life. Isabel demonstrates her moral superiority by wanting to aid Pansy in what Pansy herself wants -- not what she personally has determined is "best" for Pansy. This shows a commitment to allowing people to choose their own path in life rather than determining what they should do in life.

Psychological Realism

Another aspect of morality that is important is the recognition of motivation as determining the moral content of an action. This shows how psychological realism, a representation of what goes on in the mind of another person, is an important aspect of Henry James' moral vision. For example, both Ralph Touchett and Madame Merle are agents in Isabel's fate. They both deceive Isabel by keeping a truth from her knowledge: Ralph Touchett does not tell Isabel that it was his idea to give her his inheritance, and Madame Merle does not tell Isabel that she knew Gilbert Osmond intimately. Isabel would not have been a target if Ralph had not given her the money. Mr. Touchett, Ralph's father, even recognizes that fortune hunters may come after Isabel, and that Ralph's action may not be moral. However, we recognize Ralph as a good friend, and Madame Merle as a traitor of Isabel. Ralph only intended to help Isabel express her own idea, whereas Madame Merle's intention was to trick Isabel into marrying Osmond, a man she knew would make Isabel miserable. The evaluation of whether a good or a bad intention was the motivation for an action is important for the novel. In Henry James' world, a person who is very perceptive is able to attribute various motivations to others, while also seeing these other people as whole human beings. They are able to perceive the different possibilities of how other people think, of what other people want, rather than imposing conventional desires upon their readings of these people. This is what is occurring in Chapter 42, which Henry James believes is his great achievement of the novel. Isabel sits up and begins to read the people around her: she begins to wonder what they really want, trying to figure out how their relationships to each other might provide her with some sort of clue.

Marriage and the Modern Woman

Women were expected to marry at this time, and they were flaunting convention when they did not. While the concept of romantic love did exist in the late 19th century, it was still more common to marry for social status and wealth. Isabel, however, chooses not to marry for social status or wealth. We might assume that she marries instead for romantic love. But if we look closely at Isabel's psychological motivations, the narrator does not explicitly say that she is in love with Osmond. Why should one marry? Henry James remained a bachelor his entire life. Isabel does not exactly choose the path of romantic love either. It seems instead that she has another idea: she wants to use her marriage to help others, so as to be able to "do" something in life. Her idea of taking action is still to marry, but it is to marry for reasons other than money, love, or social status. Henrietta serves as an interesting contrast to Isabel because she is the depiction of a modern woman who does actually have an occupation. Yet, Henrietta is a limited character because she often does not care very much for the nuances of other people. She is somewhat intolerant of other people's views. Isabel on the other hand, is too generous when it comes to her perspective of others: she has a talent for caring. The implication is that Isabel has no talent in writing, and that there are no real pathways for women who have other talents during this time period.

The Bildungsroman and Idealism

Some critics have called this a Bildungsroman (see for example Baruch, works cited). In a Bildungsroman, a hero undergoes a process of education in society -- he has life experiences from which he learns how to live in the world, how to realize his goals in the world. This novel is a more interior exploration of that process of education. We meet Isabel in the library reading a book of German philosophy. She is likely reading a book of German Idealism, which asserts that the world is made up of ideas. However, in practice she ends up learning that such ideas are very much influenced by the world. There is no pure idea that exists separate from our world experiences. Her process of education then reveals the gap between the internal nature of ideals and how they come to be in the external world.