Femininity and Female Interiority: The Representation of Gender in Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady"

Thesis (M.A.), 2006

91 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. A literary classification of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady

3. Point of view in The Portrait of a Lady

4. “A young woman affronting her destiny:” James’s choice of female protagonist

5. Isabel Archer

6. Types of female characters in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady

7. Isabel Archer in relation to her “satellites”
7.1. The great opportunity: Isabel Archer and Mrs. Touchett
7.2. From confidante to manipulator: Isabel Archer and Madame Merle
7.3. Sisterly Bonds: Isabel Archer and Pansy Osmond
7.4. The bestowal of a fate: Isabel Archer and Ralph Touchett
7.5. “I am too fond of my liberty:” Isabel Archer and her rejected suitors
7.6. A certain illusion: Isabel Archer and Gilbert Osmond

8. Why does Isabel Archer marry Gilbert Osmond?

9. “There was a very straight path:” Isabel Archer’s final choice

10. Conclusion

11. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The Portrait of a Lady was first published in serialization in The Atlantic Monthly and Macmillan’s Magazine in 1880 and came out in book form one year later. Due to its parallel publication on the American and the English market, this novel of Henry James’s early period1 had enormous success, although the critical reception was not the same on both sides of the Atlantic.2 However, The Portrait of a Lady is still considered to be his greatest achievement until this day. In the course of publishing his works in collected volumes, Henry James also extensively revised The Portrait of a Lady for the 1908 New York edition, supplementing a preface to it and placing greater significance on the heroine’s perceptive progress.

The story that Henry James tells in The Portrait of a Lady is a conventional one about courtship and marriage, but only at first sight. Beyond following traditional patterns of literary conventions of his time, James also included a range of novelistic features into his work or reworked some of the traditional material to an extent that a clear break can be registered. The first part of my study will therefore be a literary classification of The Portrait of a Lady by examining and analyzing which conventional features James makes use of or breaks with and which novelties he introduces. In terms of these literary novelties, special attention will be given to the treatment of narrative perspective, since Henry James transferred this mode of presentation in the course of the story from the narrator to a “center of consciousness”3 within the story. The Portrait of a Lady cannot yet be considered as a masterpiece of the stream of consciousness technique; however, the novel already exhibits features which indicate that Henry James will devote himself to this narratological technique in his succeeding works.

The second part of my study of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady will be a close reading of the novel in which the reader comes across “a young girl affronting her destiny.”4 James’s choice of a female protagonist will be a crucial aspect of examination before giving a detailed characterization of the American Girl Isabel Archer, the young woman whom James considered worth making “the subject in the novel.”5 By identifying her most characteristic traits, it will become clear why they are of great importance to the advancement of The Portrait of a Lady and to what extent these characteristics influence the relations that this young heroine entertains or develops. James further put a number of other female characters by Isabel Archer’s side. They each serve as representatives of different types of femininity, and also a matter of examination in this thesis will be why he employed such a multi-faceted range of female characters against the backdrop of the heroine’s own character. Further, I will present the protagonist in relation to several of these female characters and also to the male ones in the novel. It is most of all through these relations that Isabel Archer unfolds her nature to her readership, and, in addition, especially the presentation of this heroine through her male acquaintances is likewise decisive as it is largely determined by gender.

As a last aspect, I will focus on the central question which runs through the entire novel. The question of “What will Isabel Archer do with herself?” engages all parties involved: the narrator, the other characters in the novel, and, similarly, the reader. In the course of the novel, this quintessential question changes slightly into “Why does Isabel Archer marry Gilbert Osmond?” and “Why does she return to an unhappy marriage?” Since the latter question has drawn particular attention to generations of scholars and literary critics, a number of varying positions will be displayed and compared in the analysis of Isabel Archer’s motivations, and therewith, also cultural and historical contexts have to be taken into account.

2. A literary classification of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady

Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady is a work of literature which unifies a range of traditional as well as popular literary elements. Consequently, I argue that it can neither be exclusively classified as a realist nor as a sentimental novel or even a Bildungsroman.6 In this first part of my study, I will identify and examine which literary elements James included in his work and through which devices he attempts then to break with especially the popular literary features.

Both the title and the plot foreshadow a classification of this Jamesian novel as a Bildungsroman. With regard to the title, which reflects the attempt to convey a portrait of the heroine, an immediate expectation is aroused that this story will present a process of development. The Bildungsroman, exhibiting elements of a biography, traditionally deals with the development of a hero or heroine. The developmental process is mostly understood in educational terms, thus often starting in the hero’s or heroine’s youth and covering a time span of several years. It further depicts this development in relation to the determining surroundings that the hero or heroine confronts. According to literary scholar Sigi Jöttkandt, the elementary structure of the Bildungsroman is that “[i]t involves a developmental narrative during which the heroine undergoes a series of (usually painful) experiences that teach her about herself and the world, resulting in an ethically charged change in consciousness at the end.”7

In the fashion of the Bildungsroman, the novel’s heroine Isabel Archer is still a young woman when she begins her career and she will be accompanied during the probably most important years of her life. Already at the beginning of her story, a guidance figure in the person of her expatriate aunt Mrs. Touchett appears on the scene. Wanting to liberate Isabel from “the confining circumstances of her provincial middle class existence”8 in America, Mrs. Touchett wants to educate the young girl according to her understanding and takes her to Europe. What James includes here in the traditional makeup of the Bildungsroman is the specifically American feature of the initiation story of a young and innocent American Girl into European society which was a prominent device in James’s fiction.9 In Europe, however,

Mrs. Touchett proves to be a weak guardian figure since her educational experiment with Isabel fails in the sense that the young heroine proves to be too much of an independent and self-reliant character.10 Above this, Mrs. Touchett is not exceedingly committed to Isabel’s education once they arrive in Europe for reasons that I will come back to in my presentation of their relationship in Chapter 7.1. Isabel learns instead through the new acquaintances she makes, who do not all show an intention to become a mentor for the young heroine. She thus makes a range of “painful experiences about herself and the world”11 before emerging from her misery with “an ethically charged change in consciousness.”12 In terms of the Bildungsroman’s resolution, Jöttkandt argues that on the question of Isabel’s return to her husband and to an unhappy marriage, it is impossible to clearly make out the reasons for her final step and “what it is that Isabel learns according to the narrative goals of the Bildungsroman.”13 As Adrian Poole suggests, however, the education of a character does not necessarily have to mean “the attainment of the command of a specific truth or body of knowledge, but the ability to identify and interpret the signs of a world around oneself.”14 I agree on this point that Isabel concludes her story with her having learned or acquired this ability and, furthermore, that she will take up her place in the world. Jöttkandt was on the right path by first detecting this narrative goal of the Bildungsroman in general terms - the undergoing of specific experiences and emerging from it with a heightened consciousness about oneself and the world - but then he fails to see that all this actually does happen to Isabel Archer in the end. Nevertheless, the story of this Jamesian heroine is not brought to a finish. It ends, as a matter of fact, in an open-ended situation which hardly promises to be reconciliatory. In this sense, James breaks with the conventional resolution of the Bildungsroman and thereby, as Judith Woolf claims, formulates a critique of this type of literature.

Henry James additionally leaves out events in The Portrait of a Lady that play a significant role in the development of Isabel Archer. What would have been crucial moments in other novels, such dramatic turning points in the life of this heroine appear only as retrospective summaries given by other characters. Neither Isabel’s departure from America, nor her wedding or even the birth and death of her only child are dramatized or directly and it is on this basis that a cultural confrontation occurs. I will therefore not consider this theme as a principal one in my study of this novel.

presented to the reader. Additionally Isabel’s final departure for Rome, the climax and the denouement of the story, are only conveyed through another character’s remark. These points make Henry James move even further away from the narrative elements and goals of the Bildungsroman.

Beyond the development of the heroine according to the Bildungsroman, The Portrait of a Lady features the prominent theme of courtship and marriage so common in sentimental literature. Additionally, this motive is not restricted to the main plot but also expanded onto “minor figures,”15 namely Isabel’s stepdaughter Pansy Osmond and also her long-time friend Henrietta Stackpole. Traditionally, a romantic heroine’s imagination would be concerned with love and marriage; Isabel Archer’s ideals, in contrast, revolve around her own personal independence. Furthermore, The Portrait of a Lady is at a great distance to these motives of courtship and marriage since the outcome is anything but romantic. James depicts marriage as rather entrapping and destructive as in many of his other novels. It is therefore worth noticing that actually none of the marriages that are part of The Portrait of a Lady are happy ones and could at best function as a model especially for Isabel Archer’s own marriage. Thus, I argue, it is impossible that Isabel should succeed in her own marriage because there has been no ideal marriage exemplified in her own life - not even by her sisters, as the reader is informed early on.

Traditionally, marriages would conclude a sentimental novel. If Isabel would have married one of her first suitors, the story would have already been at its conclusion, and this would also have been the case with Isabel’s marriage to Osmond. Literary scholar Sally Ledger remarks in this respect that by “[inserting] marriage into an earlier part of the novel, […] a dissection rather than a celebration of this institution [is allowed for].”16 The heroine is depicted in her marriage only throughout a short period of time, and the wedding and even the first years of her life with Osmond fall into a time lack. Consequently, Henry James presents the circumstances of marriage in a negative way that would not have been found in sentimental fiction. And it is also for this reason that literary scholar Dana Luciano sees in The Portrait of a Lady and Isabel Archer’s marriage an “exposition and critique of women’s ‘destiny’ in the […] 19th century.”17

In addition, the publication of The Portrait of a Lady falls into the literary epoch of American Realism. Henry James counts as a representative of this trend in literature in the last third of the nineteenth century along with authors such as W. D. Howells and Mark Twain. According to literary scholar Winfried Fluck, the criteria featured in realist novels is as follows:

Der realistische Roman kann in seiner klassischen Phase geradezu als Genre […] exemplarischer Lernprozesse angesehen werden. Immer wieder erzählt er die Geschichte einer Identitätsfindung, in der Charaktere, deren Realitätswahr- nehmung durch kulturelle Konventionen und nicht zuletzt durch die Lektüre von Romanen verstellt ist, mit den schmerzlichen Konsequenzen ihres eigenen mangelnden Wirklichkeitsverständnisses konfrontiert werden. In dieser Situation ist es die eigene Erfahrung, die verhindert, dass die Charaktere in falscher Wahrnehmung verharren. Die Einbildungskraft wird nicht grundsätzlich als Quelle der Erkenntnis abgelehnt, sie muss sich jedoch ständig von der Realität korrigieren lassen. Die Gefahr für das Individuum besteht darin, in der kritiklosen Rezeption kulturellen Materials die Wahrnehmungsmuster anderer zu übernehmen. Demgegenüber lernen die repräsentativen Charaktere des klassischen amerikanischen Realismus, ihrer eigenen Erfahrung als der einzig verlässlichen Quelle von Erkenntnis zu vertrauen.18

All the listed features also apply to James’s The Portrait of a Lady. What is further noticeable in this respect is that the realist novel still features the same or at least similar themes which have been used in sentimental fiction and the Bildungsroman. The courtship and marriage motive is still an important part in Realism, and it is further on concerned with the developmental processes of the protagonists just like in a Bildungsroman. What has changed, nevertheless, is the treatment of these specific topics and motives in the way I have outlined before in this chapter. James’s further intention is that he avoids the conventional though unauthentic conclusions - the happy ending - so common in popular literature.

In addition to these reworkings of traditional features, Henry James includes some specifically realist characteristics in The Portrait of a Lady. Still in connection to the narrative goals of the Bildungsroman, the developmental process of the protagonist is largely expanded onto the protagonist’s consciousness, and the implementation of this is achieved through the introduction of new narratological techniques. In this respect, the stream of consciousness technique is outstanding and can be employed within the novel in various forms. Along with this goes a further change in the narrative perspective which I will introduce in the following chapter.

Another important characteristic, which perfectly applies to The Portrait of a Lady, is a shift in the importance and weight of action within the story. Even though this Jamesian novel is of considerable length, the storyline is comparably poor in terms of action. Furthermore, important events are even omitted. What Henry James concentrated on instead in this work is the characterization of the protagonist as well as other personages in the novel and, most importantly, their relations among each other. Therefore, I will focus especially on this aspect in my examination and discussion of The Portrait of a Lady.

Finally, by flouting literary conventions, Henry James pursues a certain intention towards his readership. The reader is first led into a specific direction by the assumptions that are conveyed through the text. Expectations are generally not met, however, since especially Isabel continuously goes into the exact opposite direction. The idea behind this is that James wants to render his readers sensitive so that they should not take for granted all the given circumstances and from this draw the most convenient conclusion as it is laid before them.

The Portrait of a Lady is an adequate example in order to show that literary classifications cannot be given with absolute certainty. Just like literary epochs are fuzzy in their conception, the same applies for literary works and can therefore never be exclusively classified as being part of one genre. Furthermore, it is always a question from which time a work of literature is viewed, because conceptions of literary classification also undergo a constant reviewing and new approaches can be detected.

3. Point of view in The Portrait of a Lady

An important criteria of literary Realism is the “minimal embellishment or interpretation of subjects as they appear in every-day life.”19 In The Portrait of a Lady, a consistent repelling of the narrator goes along with a gain of importance a character’s consciousness within the novel. The traditional function of an omniscient or third-person narrator is the description as well as the commentary of narrated events or circumstances from the outside. However, there are only few scenes in The Portrait of a Lady in which the narrator still occupies this position. Since the beginning of this story, the narrator only occupies a position of “limited perspective,”20 and as the novel progresses, this perspective is consistently drawn into the background and substituted by one of the fictional characters, or, more precisely, their consciousness. This shift in narrative perspective, however, does not mean that this also involves an alteration of the narrative situation in terms of using other personal pronouns. What happens instead is that the depiction of events and circumstances occurs from the inner perspective of a character. Thus, the person is characterized or presented exclusively through his or her train of thoughts devoid of a narrator’s commentary, but “skillfully disguised by the voice of the narrator.”21 This technique which Henry James makes use of - though not as extensively as in his succeeding works - is called stream of consciousness technique.

The traditional third-person narrator is still present at the outset of the story. The narrator’s most prominent performance is the extensive characterization of the heroine Isabel Archer in Chapter VI22 of The Portrait of a Lady. This episode of the narrator’s analysis is aimed to give a more complete picture of the young woman against the backdrop of what has been said about her so far, on the one hand, and to prepare the reader how this will effect the heroine’s future. Until Chapter VI, Isabel Archer is largely presented to the reader through the eyes of her cousin Ralph Touchett, who gives an extremely sympathetic account of her. The narrator, on the other hand, fully embraces the function of the commentator since he not only points to Isabel’s amenities but also her inherent flaws. What the narrator does here is not an attempt to reduce her likeability on the side of the reader. Moreover, an awareness is supposed to be evoked, and as will be seen in the course of the novel, the reasons for Isabel’s later misery in marriage and life have its basis in what the narrator pointed to earlier in his analysis of her. After this extensive analysis, the narrator’s role consistently decreases.

As mentioned above, Ralph Touchett occupies an important role as well. Accordingly, there are two complementary perspectives, concerning in particular the perspective from which the heroine is seen. While the narrator serves moreover as a kind of biographer of Isabel, Ralph Touchett holds the position of “central observer”23 and gives the reader an account of her current situation. And also other characters, exclusively but interestingly the male ones, provide additional perspectives on the young heroine. However, the narrator and the “central observer” share a similar fate. The growth of Isabel Archer’s consciousness is accompanied by the diminishing role of both of them. The heroine consequently becomes the “center of consciousness.”24 In the second part of The Portrait of a Lady, - from Chapter XXXVI to the end - Isabel’s consciousness has widely substituted the narrator’s voice. The culmination of her growth in consciousness occurs in Chapter XLII - a scene in which Isabel finds herself in “a state of heightened perception”25 - when she discovers the truth of her relationship with her husband and comes to an understanding of her own share in this misery. Thus, the gain of truth or the acquisition of knowledge involves a growth in consciousness at the same time. In this respect, Donatella Izzo makes clear that [t]he truly dramatic turning points have to do with awareness [or consciousness], as in Isabel’s long contemplative midnight vigil which takes up all of Chapter 42 and which - James writes in his Preface - “throws the action further forward than twenty ‘incidents’ might have done” and is “a supreme illustration of the general plan.” But ‘action’ has little to do with facts; rather, it concerns shifting and alternating points of view.26

What is made visible in this argument is that narrative perspective - or point of view - is not only restricted to the level of narratology. Izzo further claims in her argumentation on point of view in The Portrait of a Lady that theme and technique are one: The Portrait of a Lady is a novel of and about point of view, focused as it is on Isabel’s consciousness and, only when their points of view held to locate and illustrate the protagonist, on those of her “satellites.” Both subject and object of observation, Isabel reveals her self as she reveals the world.27

David Kirby presents a similar position, stating that “point of view is not merely of technical importance in The Portrait of a Lady, it becomes the subject of the novel as well.”28 Point of view thus also becomes a matter within the story, that is the holding of different points of view which eventually collide. This is also expressed in the words of Mrs. Touchett, stating to her young niece that “there are as many points of view in the world as there are people of sense to take them.”29 At the end of The Portrait of a Lady, this holding of different points of view becomes the central problem in the relationship between Isabel and Gilbert Osmond.

Yet another crucial point of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, as Judith Woolf observes, is the gender-determined perspective through which the young heroine is presented to the reader. It is “a matter of the gender of the eye that observes her [Isabel].”30 Throughout the novel, the male characters of The Portrait of a Lady function as observers of Isabel’s character as well as her demeanor. She becomes the object of their interest for various reasons, may it be for their entertainment as in the case of her cousin Ralph Touchett or because this interest is sexually motivated.

4. “A young woman affronting her destiny:” James’s choice of female


Henry James saw himself deeply influenced by the current trends in literary tradition so that his choice of protagonist necessarily had to fall on a woman. He was familiar with the novels of his time, and it is for this similarity that The Portrait of a Lady is often compared and analyzed in secondary literature along with works such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda and the novels of Jane Austen and Edith Wharton.31 However, James gives central importance to “a young woman affronting her destiny”32 instead of minimizing a woman’s story as “only one aspect of a study of a small-scale but paradigmatic society.”33 Consequently, Isabel Archer is not one character among many others, but it is her story that the novel is based on. What becomes obvious then is that James further advances his reworking of the traditional material, as Woolf further points out, “reveals not merely the fascination of finding a different set of solutions to the problems posed by [other contemporary or preceding] novels, but a fundamentally different vision of life.”34 Woolf continues her argumentation that “[James] frees Isabel from the constraints, both of character and circumstances, that narrowed [other female characters’] range of choices. Isabel is given the riches that [other female characters] longed for […] [and] she is given a choice of eligible suitors.”35 Additionally, according to Philip Sicker, female characters had traditionally functioned mainly to “illuminate the personalities of the male [characters],”36 and this can also be said for earlier novels of Henry James. However, as Sicker further states, “[i]n The Portrait of a Lady […] James placed female figures in the center and, more importantly, endowed them with a keen awareness of what they represent in the intellectual dialectic of the novel.”37

In relation to this, many scholars see James’s choice as a reaction on the changing social atmosphere of his time and its integration and negotiation into his works. Literary scholar Lyall H. Powers points out that [t]hese literary heroines are strong-willed young women, admirably or regrettably confronting the challenge typically presented by social custom to members of the ‘weaker sex’ who legitimately aspire to a broader range of options than the roles of mother and housewife or brittle spinster. As such, they anticipated the contemporary concern with the ‘new woman’ who was beginning to assert herself as a personage to be reckoned with during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and the women’s movement to reform.”38

Some critics argue that James’s depiction of a woman’s story only aimed at exhibiting the consequences if women were intending to break away from their traditionally ascribed roles. Feminist criticism, however, points to James’s interest towards the women’s cause as well as his “special empathy with the condition of women”39 which he exhibited in works such as The Portrait of a Lady. As Peggy McCormack states in her study of the novel, “James [reveals] feminist sympathies because he shows a young woman struggling so tenaciously to avoid entrapment by a marriage market economy.”40 And she further argues that “James […] is both feminist and feminine in his writing. His feminism derives from the extraordinary sympathy he demonstrates in dealing with women’s position in a sexual exchange economy while his femininity may be found at the level of style.”41 She claims that James’s fiction, and The Portrait of a Lady in particular, does not miss any element common in feminine literature, hence not revealing any “gender-related misperceptions.”42 What McCormack intends to say is that James could have told the story from a male point of view, thus choosing a male protagonist. She sees in the presentation of Isabel’s situation not the same traditional male novelist’s treatment of women since Isabel is neither consigned to a “happy-ever-after marriage” or condemned to death or other.

5. Isabel Archer

James’s young heroine Isabel Archer is introduced to the novel’s setting towards the end of Chapter I of The Portrait of a Lady. Announced in a telegram from her aunt, Mrs. Touchett, Isabel’s reputation precedes her actual arrival on the scene and makes her immediately the center of interest and speculation as well. The novel opens with three men gathered for afternoon tea on the lawn of an old English mansion, Gardencourt, and the content of the telegram instantly becomes their main topic of conversation. “Taken sister’s girl, died last year, go to Europe, two sisters, quite independent.”43 44 This pre-definition of Isabel’s most unique and original trait of character makes the three men wonder in what sense the term “independence” is used. The novel’s opening thus perfectly prepares the reader for the development of the novel’s major theme, namely the conflict between individualism and social custom, or, in other words, Isabel Archer’s independence in relation to the restricting constraints of the world around her.

In reference to the telegram, Ralph Touchett, the son of Isabel’s aunt and of the mansion’s landowner, contemplates whether the expression [applies] more particularly to the young lady [his] mother has adopted or does it characterize her sisters equally? - and is it in a moral or in a financial sense? Does it mean that they have been left well off [after their father’s death], or that they wish to be under no obligations? Or does it simply mean that they are fond of their own way?45

Shortly after her arrival, Isabel Archer proves herself to be the independent American Girl, and the other characters discover her independence to be of a moral nature. Already in the initial conversation with her cousin Ralph, Isabel fondly declares her liberty after the circumstances of Mrs. Touchett’s bringing Isabel over to Europe are clarified:

“Adopted me? […] Oh no; she has not adopted me. I’m not a candidate for adoption.”

“I beg a thousand pardons,” Ralph murmured. “I meant - I meant -” He hardly knew what he meant.

“You meant she has taken me up. Yes; she likes to take people up. She has been very kind to me; but,” she added with a certain visible eagerness of desire to be explicit, “I’m very fond of my liberty.”46

In the following course of the novel, the young heroine is shown repeatedly to assert her “love of liberty” and independent-mindedness in a number of designative scenes. The reader thereby receives a first impression of her, conveyed mostly through the eyes of her cousin Ralph Touchett on whom she makes a great impact. It is only after this exceedingly sympathetic view of Isabel by her cousin Ralph has been firmly established that the narrator steps in and gives a more detailed and also critical account of Isabel’s being as well as of her youth. Until that point, the reader does not learn a great deal about Isabel Archer, that is, virtually nothing of her past and very little about her personality beyond what is presented through the eyes of the other characters, except for her being an independent woman.

The role of the narrator has already been examined in Chapter 3 of my study, and I will amplify in the following the narrator’s most extensive analysis of the young heroine in terms of her life story and the effects that result therefrom. The chapters leading up to Isabel’s biographical account as presented by the narrator in Chapter VI depict the approach of Mrs. Touchett to her niece Isabel in the Archers’ home in Albany, New York. Chapter III reports the first meeting between these two women, the elder one finding Isabel reading in the library of the house.47 Until the decisive chapter of Isabel’s complete presentation, the reader is shown the arrangements that are made between Mrs. Touchett, Isabel Archer, and also her two older sisters to take the youngest of the Archer sisters over to Europe. The idea of going abroad captivates the mind of all three sisters since it is seen as a great opportunity for Isabel. Her eldest sister, Mrs. Lilian Ludlow, expresses the delight she feels to her husband:

“Well, she ought to go abroad,’ said Mrs. Ludlow. “She’s just the person to go abroad.”

“And you want the old lady to take her, is that it?”

“She has offered to take her—she’s dying to have Isabel go. But what I want her to do when she gets her there is to give her all the advantages. I’m sure all we’ve got to do,” said Mrs. Ludlow, ‘is to give her a chance.”

“A chance for what?”

“A chance to develop.”48

The opportunity of going abroad to Europe with her aunt is offered as a temptation to Isabel.

Although Isabel Archer actually intends to manifest her idea of independence towards her aunt, she nevertheless concedes that she would defer her cherished love of liberty to the chance that is granted to her.

“I should like very much to go to Florence.”

“Well, if you’ll be very good, and do everything I tell you I’ll take you there,” Mrs. Touchett declared.

Our young woman’s emotion deepened; she flushed a little and smiled at her aunt in silence. “Do everything you tell me? I don’t think I can promise that.” “No, you don’t look like a person of that sort. You’re fond of your own way; but it’s not for me to blame you.”

“And yet, to go to Florence,’ the girl exclaimed in a moment, “I’d promise almost anything!”49

The course of the novel will show, however, that the young heroine proves to be unable to meet her aunt’s demand, not even on a general level. The principal reason why Isabel Archer will continually be in conflict with the world around her lies in her conception of freedom, especially in her belief of being able to choose freely regardless of social circumstances. This conflict is one of the major topics in The Portrait of a Lady. The foundations for this belief lies in Isabel’s upbringing and also in her national heritance. From the outset of the novel, she clearly embodies the idea of liberty, but it is nevertheless a problematic philosophy which she has invented for herself und desperately clings to. Isabel’s understanding of freedom is conceived of as boundless possibilities. But since “freedom means inhibiting the state of possibility,”50 as literary scholar Elizabeth Allen remarks - that means that “freedom [has to be] understood as an absence of limitation,”51 - it becomes clear that Isabel’s concept of freedom is of a negative rather than positive nature. Isabel believes that she is free as long as there is nothing impinging on her continuing ability to choose. It will be perceived in the course of the novel, however, that Isabel’s concept of freedom is mainly theoretic and that instead she has a certain reluctance to confront life, which likewise implies to choose. And since any choice does close off future choices, Isabel’s ideal of freedom seems essentially to be that she wishes not to have to choose at all. That this is impossible is needless to say. The reader will therefore see the heroine in numerous scenes in which she is facing a range of choices in life, and that in the end, she must discover that she chose exactly the wrong way. But before this decisive realization, Isabel Archer passes through a life in which she believes always to do the right thing, and this from her early childhood on because “[she] had never been corrected by the judgment of people who seemed to her to speak with authority.”52. The foundation of her idea of freedom, as mentioned above, therefore lies in this formative period, and I will examine in the following this stage of her life in detail which is conveyed to the reader through the narrator.

Chapter VI of The Portrait of a Lady, offering a “descriptive, analytic, and psychological exposition of the heroine,”53 provides the reader with a more comprehensive view of Isabel Archer than has been accomplished in the preceding chapters. The tone of the narrator here is less sympathetic and enthusiastic towards the heroine since the narrator not only comments on her amenities but also points at her flaws. By telling the story of her childhood and youth, the narrator presents the background for Isabel Archer’s personality as it is experienced at the time that the novel describes. It is pointed out that the foundation of Isabel’s love of liberty very much lies in her childhood and youth and the way she has been brought up and educated. During her youth, the environment in which Isabel grows up lacked a distinctly maternal influence, her mother having “died years before”54 the novel begins. The point in time and the circumstance of her death are never specified in the novel. After all, this passing mention of Isabel’s deceased mother is the only direct one in the entire novel, and even afterwards, Isabel only describes herself as having “neither father nor mother.”55 The leading position of her father in this statement already indicates that the mother does not play a role in Isabel’s life. As a result of the missing mother, Isabel and her two elder sisters Edith and Lilian fall into the care of their father, who is a determining factor in the shaping of the novel’s heroine and her unique character. Isabel further idolizes her father, responding to him with unquestioning admiration and love, describing him as “her handsome, much-loved father”56 who had always been keen to ward off everything unpleasant in life from his daughters. In Isabel’s opinion, her father could not have achieved a higher status, and “it was a great fortune to have been his daughter.”57 In return for her affection, Isabel had always been his favorite daughter, presumably because of her independent-mindedness that her father had supported all along.58 However, counter to her personal perception of her father runs a more negative public discernment of Mr. Archer. According to “a very few harsh critics,”59

Isabel’s father had “not even brought up his daughters. They had had no regular education and no permanent home; they had been at once spoiled and neglected; they had lived with nursemaids and governesses (usually very bad ones),”60 and the narrator does not miss reporting an incident which occurred on one of the trips to Europe.61 Mr. Archer - his whereabouts not being specified, but presumably being with a lover - had then left his daughters in the care of a foreign nursemaid, but the same ran off with a Russian aristocrat, leaving the girls alone. However caring and concerned Mr. Archer might have been towards his daughters, this occurrence particularly underlines his irresponsibility. Though both representations of Mr. Archer offer extreme views - affectionate on the side of his daughters, and Isabel in particular, and critical on the side of his surroundings, including his sister-in-law Mrs. Touchett - they do speak the same issue. As Kristin Sanner notes, “either from a protectiveness that naїvely shielded her or from neglect that did not prepare her for the real world, Isabel’s own ideas and experience have left her idealistic, strong-willed, and susceptible.”62

Isabel Archer is described to assert her characteristic determinedness at an early stage in her life. As a girl, Isabel chose for herself that she will not go to school. She attended the primary school for only one day - a progressive because coeducational institution which was situated right across the street from her grandmother’s house in which “the little girl had been offered the opportunity of laying a foundation of knowledge”63 - but disliked the regimentations of the school. With the consent of her father, she remains at home, also despite the “pain of exclusion”64 from her peers that moves her from time to time. She instead enjoys an education that consisted in the “uncontrolled use”65 of her grandmother’s library. The result of Isabel’s refusing to attend school is an important measure in her manifestation of freedom, and the fact that it is realized without parental prohibition reinforces the feeling in her that she has acted correctly.

Isabel Archer’s education thus has to be seen as largely consisting of literature, and as her disposition shows, presumably romantic or popular literature. The books she reads in her grandmother’s library are primarily chosen because they conform to her interests and ideas or, in the narrator’s words, “Isabel was guided in the selection of books chiefly by the frontispiece.”66 As a consequence to her unguided and primarily literary education, the young girl proves to have an adulterated image of life and of the world around her which leads her to conflate fiction and reality or experience. She utters her first impression of Gardencourt, her uncle’s country mansion, in terms of fiction, noting that it is “just like a novel.”67 And on meeting Lord Warburton at Gardencourt, Isabel designates his presence on the scene with the exclamation, “Oh, I hoped there would be a lord.”68 She further interrogates her uncle about England, invariably asking “whether it corresponded with the descriptions in the books.”69 Some of her imaginations are even revealed as dangerously romantic: “Sometimes she went so far as to wish that she might find herself some day in a difficult position, so that she should have the pleasure of being as heroic as the occasion demanded.”70 All this prefigures that her future is at a risk because of “her meagre knowledge, her inflated ideals, her confidence at once innocent and dogmatic, her temper at once exacting and indulgent.”71 She approaches the Old World with romantic illusions, and she is incapable of “reading” the signs and the world around her.72

To summarize, Isabel has transmuted her parental lack into her own autonomy, but properly read, it is also a confession of weakness. “I can do what I choose - I belong quite to the independent class. I’ve neither father nor mother; I’m poor and of a serious disposition; I’m not pretty. I therefore am not bound to be timid and conventional.”73 Isabel is desperately in need of someone to guide her, but either the people she meets cannot give this to her or they have ignoble intentions, and this finally leads her into the arms of Gilbert Osmond who, at first sight, promises to grant her anything she ever longed for.

Her romanticism will become a major problem in her later life as it is shown in the novel, and it is already reflected in an early concrete example which depicts her as ambivalent in her capacity to interpret real situations. She confesses to her uncle in a conversation on the current political situation in England that she “should delight in seeing a revolution.”74

Throughout The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel embraces the democratic ideals of liberty, freedom, and independence, which draws a connection to her American origin. The text makes the reader assume that she is aware of her country’s heritage that ensued from such important events as the Revolutionary War or the Civil War. However, her understanding of these events reflects once more her romantic perception of the world. As a child, Isabel had reacted to the Civil War as being “an emotional drama devoid of political content.”75 “[S]he passed months of this long period [of the Civil War] in a state of almost passionate excitement, in which she felt herself at times (to her extreme confusion) stirred almost indiscriminately by the valour of either army.”76 Even though Isabel had been a young girl at the time of this historical event, she still proves to be unaware of and does not even understand the reasons behind such things as wars or revolutions as a young woman. And in her later acquaintances in Europe, she is likewise unable to grasp the full measure and meaning of the world around her, eventually leading her straight into a disastrous life.

Although Isabel’s vision of life is unquestionably romantic, she does not have any fantasies about love which might be expected of a young girl spending her time reading fiction. She denies that she has ever dreamed of romantic love, of “a young man with a fine moustache going down on his knees before her.”77 In comparison with other Jamesian female protagonists, most notably the young American Girl in Daisy Miller - A Study, Isabel Archer is not one of these flirtatious girls who shines in the company of young men and for whom it is a pleasure to turn their heads. In contrast, Isabel Archer will be shown as acting reservedly and insecurely towards the men who desire to play a role in her life. This matter will be the main focus in Chapter 7.5 of this study when I examine the young heroine in relation to the two men whose marriage proposals she rejects.

6. Types of female characters in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady does not only exhibit a slight surplus of female characters, but also a range of different women who all stand as representatives for specific female types. It is interesting to see why James employed such a multi-faceted range of different types of women, especially against the backdrop of social and historical context in which this Jamesian novel can be embedded. On a cultural level, these women, of course, also reveal different forms of femininity as perceived in the late nineteenth century. Within the novel, these female characters that James created in this work do not only function as counterparts to the heroine in terms of their characteristic traits - thereby emphasizing and amplifying Isabel Archer’s uniqueness - but they also have to be considered with regard to the lives these women are leading and to which extent this might offer alternatives to the life that the heroine is leading before as well as after her marriage. Sanner resumes the main topic of The Portrait of a Lady with the following words:

While James develops the theme of freedom and constraint mainly through Isabel’s story, each of the other female characters in The Portrait of a Lady introduces a different aspect of the problem and offers a different solution. Thereby, a comparison can be provided between the protagonist and the other female figures.78

Literary scholar Mary Suzanne Schriber points out that “compared with these other female characters, Isabel proves to be not only different from other women, but different from other women who are themselves different from other women.”79 And it is this which I will discuss in this chapter.

I will start with Mrs. Lydia Touchett, Isabel’s aunt, the first woman the heroine meets in this novel. Mrs. Touchett is described as rather eccentric from the very beginning. The elderly woman has been married to an American banker with whom she went over to Europe and had a son, Ralph. After only one year, it proves that their “experiment in matrimony had not been a happy one”80 and Mrs. Touchett decided to live separately from her husband since then, taking up residence in Florence. They remain linked by retaining their marriage, but they share no more intimacies.


1 Henry James’s literary productions are subdivided into three creative periods, namely the early, the middle, and the later phase. For more information see Kenneth Graham, Henry James: A Literary Life (London: Macmillan, 1995) and Tony Tanner, Henry James: The Writer and His Work (Amherst: The U of Massachusetts P, 1989).

2 While James’s American readership was delighted with this novel, English readers were especially critical of the novel’s unconventional resolution. For a detailed account see Adeline Tintner, The Book World of Henry James: Appropriating the Classics (Ann Arbor: U.M.I. Research Press, 1987).

3 Selina S. Jamil introduces this term at the very start of her work. Selina S. Jamil, Jamesian Centers of Consciousness as Readers and Tellers of Stories (Lanham: UP of America, 2001) 1.

4 Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (London: Penguin Books, 1997) iv.

5 James iii.

6 Since the German technical term is widely used in secondary literature instead of its English translation novel of education, I will also use the German word.

7 Sigi Jöttkandt, “Portrait of an Act: Aesthetics and Ethics in The Portrait of a Lady,” The Henry James Review 25.1 (2004): 67.

8 Judith Woolf, Henry James: The Major Novels (Cambridge: Cambridge UP,1991) 37.

9 Henry James is well known for his treatment of the so-called “International theme” in both his early as well as later works. This novel, however, is an exception insofar that it does not deal primarily with the topic of the conflict between Europe and America since all the major characters are Americans or expatriate Americans,

10 Jöttkandt remarks in his study of The Portrait of a Lady that in a Bildungsroman inherent traits of character also undergo further development and only unfold completely against this particular background. See Jöttkandt 81.

11 Jöttkandt 67.

12 Jöttkandt 67.

13 Jöttkandt 68.

14 Adrian Poole, Henry James: New Readings (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991) 23.

15 Woolf 55.

16 Sally Ledger, The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997) 26.

17 Dana Luciano, “Invalid Relations: Queer Kinship in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady,” The Henry James Review 23.2 (2002): 196.

18 Winfried Fluck, Das kulturelle Imaginäre: Eine Funktionsgeschichte des amerikanischen Romans 1790-1900 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997) 259-260.

19 Richard Freadman, Eliot, James and the Fictional Self: A Study in Character and Narration (London: Macmillan, 1986) 4.

20 Donatella Izzo, “The Portrait of a Lady and Modern Narrative,” New Essays on The Portrait of a Lady, ed. Joel Porte (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990) 33.

21 Izzo 42.

22 Chapters which refer to The Portrait of a Lady will be given in Roman numerals, others which refer to my thesis will be given in Arabic numerals.

23 Dorothea Krook, The Ordeal of Consciousness in Henry James (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1962) 27.

24 Jamil 3.

25 Jöttkandt 79.

26 Izzo 41.

27 Izzo 42.

28 David Kirby, The Portrait of a Lady and The Turn of the Screw: Henry James and Melodrama (London: Macmillan, 1991) 38.

29 James 56.

30 Izzo 43.

31 Among a number of scholars, Judith Woolf and Stefanie Hofmann designed their works as a comparison of this Jamesian novel with those of authors named above.

32 James iv.

33 Woolf 44.

34 Woolf 45.

35 Woolf 44.

36 Philip Sicker, Love and the Quest for Identity in the Fiction of Henry James (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980)

37 Sicker 55.

38 Lyall H. Powers, The Portrait of a Lady: Maiden, Woman, and Heroine (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991) 8.

39 Millicent Bell, “Isabel Archer and the Affronting of Plot,” The Portrait of a Lady: An Authoritative Text; Henry James and the Novel; Reviews and Criticism, ed. Robert D. Bamberg (New York: Norton, 1995) 752.

40 Peggy McCormack, The Rule of Money: Gender, Class, and Exchange Economics in the Fiction of Henry James (Ann Arbor: U.M.I. Research Press, 1990) 31.

41 McCormack 32.

42 McCormack 32.

43 James 13

44 There is actually an incongruity in James’s text here: What is actually meant by “died last year” is the death of Isabel’s father. It is mentioned later on in the novel that Mrs. Archer, Isabel’s mother, had already died a long time ago, without giving the exact point in time or the circumstances.

45 James 13.

46 James 20.

47 When Mrs. Touchett finds Isabel, she is reading a “history of German thought,”(24) a philosophy which builds the cornerstone of American Transcendentalism. This Jamesian protagonist has often been qualified as an Emersonian character since she unites in herself the ideals of Transcendentalism, namely self-reliance and

independent-mindedness, as they have been promoted by their most prominent advocate, Ralph Waldo Emerson. For a detailed characterization of Isabel as an Emersonian character, see Lyall H. Powers.

48 James 29.

49 James 27

50 Elizabeth Allen, A Woman’s Place in the Novels of Henry James (London: Macmillan 1984) 60.

51 Allen 60.

52 James 47.

53 Dorothy van Ghent, “On The Portrait of a Lady,” The Portrait of a Lady: An Authoritative Text; Henry James and the Novel; Reviews and Criticism, ed. Robert D. Bamberg (New York: Norton, 1995) 681.

54 James 19.

55 James 150.

56 James 31.

57 James 31.

58 Isabel, the youngest of the three Archer sisters, is considered to be the “‘intellectual’ one” whereas her sister Edith was “the beauty” and Lilian “the practical one.” James 28.

59 James 31.

60 James 31.

61 Mr. Archer had been himself very fond of Europe, and he took his daughters several times there and stayed with them for extended periods of time. It is noted in the text that “[h]e wished his daughters, even as children, to see as much of the world as possible; it was for this purpose that, before Isabel was fourteen, he had transported them three times across the Atlantic.” James 32.

62 Kristin Sanner, “Wasn’t All History Full of the Destruction of Precious Things?: Missing Mothers, Feminized Fathers, and the Purchase of Freedom in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady,” The Henry James Review 26.2 (2005): 154-155.

63 James 23.

64 James 23.

65 James 23.

66 James 23.

67 James 16.

68 James 16.

69 James 52.

70 James 48.

71 James 48.

72 Throughout the novel, Isabel Archer is described as not being able to grasp the full meaning of things, and this fact is usually phrased in terms of her incapability of reading and interpreting. In the highly decisive Chapter XLII of The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel discovers this incompetence of hers. She realizes the truth about her relationship to Osmond and admits that “she had not read him right.” James 393.

73 James 150.

74 James 68.

75 Van Ghent 673.

76 James 33.

77 James 186.

78 Sanner 149.

79 Mary Suzanne Schriber, Gender and the Writer’s Imagination: From Cooper to Wharton (Lexington: The UP of Kentucky, 1987) 123.

80 James 12.

Excerpt out of 91 pages


Femininity and Female Interiority: The Representation of Gender in Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady"
University of Hannover
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
895 KB
Femininity, Female, Interiority, Representation, Gender, Henry, James, Portrait, Lady
Quote paper
Annika Uhlig (Author), 2006, Femininity and Female Interiority: The Representation of Gender in Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/61432


  • No comments yet.
Look inside the ebook
Title: Femininity and Female Interiority: The Representation of Gender in Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free