The Portrait of a Lady
A Woman’s Journey from North America to Europe in The Portrait of a Lady
In psychology, one of the most frequently debated topics deals with the issue of environmental and societal impact on one’s upbringing. It is commonly believed that society plays a tremendous role in how one behaves and how one readily conforms to the environment he is raised in. For instance, in a society where propriety is esteemed upon, one is expected to behave in a well-fashioned manner. In Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer, the novel’s protagonist, serves as an epitome of one who mirrors her surroundings. As she travels from North America to Europe, her behaviors, perspectives, values, and desires begin to change greatly. Through the utilization of formal elements, such as imagery, language, structure, and tone, Henry James clearly delineates Europe as a country of sophistication and decadence, and North America as a country of innocence and individualism. In the opening lines of the novel, James captures the essence of the European social conventions with this image: “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea (17).” James takes a simple social custom of English tea ceremony and embellishes the tone and language of the passage to provide readers with a picture of the European upper class. This image of orderliness and aristocracy is quickly interrupted as Isabel enters the novel. From the inception of the novel, Isabel Archer is depicted as one of the “American girls who was used to a great deal of deference and a high spirit (27).” Peripheral characters such as Lord Warburton and Ralph are taken back by the liveliness of Isabel; Lord Warburton exclaims that Isabel is his “idea of an interesting woman (30) and Ralph envies her desire for independence. Mrs. Touchett views Isabel as a girl who “thinks she knows a great deal of the world – like most American girls; but like most American girls she’s ridiculously mistaken (47).” Isabel is clearly not in sync with the European traditions of social conventions. By juxtaposing the two representatives of North America and Europe through imagery and language, James reveals to readers that not only is there a stark contrast between the two settings, but there is also a disparity between the characters that come from the differing settings. Similarly, James frequently interchanges the perspectives in which readers view Isabel. By utilizing the structure of the “portrait” as the organizing image of the novel, James is showing us Isabel’s actions from her perspective and voice. She makes known to her readers that “her deepest enjoyment is to feel the continuity between the movements of her own soul and the agitations of the world (41).” He, however, also uses tangential points of views to disclose to readers the impressions Isabel makes on those surrounding her. By casting this new light on Isabel, James not only strengthens Isabel’s character and the American optimism, innocence, and independence she embodies, but also divulges elements of her character that will prove to be incompatible in Europe. As Isabel’s stay in Europe lengthens, readers begin to see with more clarity the struggles she faces between independence and European social conventions. Isabel deems that she is an independent person, with utmost passion for liberty, exploration, and adventures. She shies away from romantic attractions and declines marriage proposals because they would ultimately curtail her autonomy. “At the risk of adding to the evidence of her self-sufficiency it must be said that there had been moments when this possibility of admiration by a personage represented to her an aggression almost to the degree of an affront, quite to the degree of an inconvenience (94).” Although Isabel never defines the independence she yearns for, by consistently rejecting proposals from Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood, Isabel suggests that individual self-sufficiency contradicts a traditional marriage. On the other hand, Isabel also has a desire to conform to the European society. She is attracted to the calm and conventional lifestyle of the Molyneux and she envies Warburton’s sisters for their docility and submissiveness. Because Isabel was raised without an authority figure in her childhood, she innately hungers for security, stability, safety, and protection, therefore, giving her the propensity to easily conform and accept social conventions. Although she reasons that marrying Lord Warburton would “fail to support any enlightened prejudice in favour of the free exploration of life that she hitherto entertained or was now capable of entertaining (101),” she now embraces the idea that “with whatever qualifications one would, Lord Warburton had offered her a great opportunity (101).” Marrying into the English aristocracy would denote a social opportunity for Isabel, giving her status, security, and stability. Isabel’s changed way of thinking manifests to readers that Isabel’s American values are quickly dissipating as European romanticism and idealism are slowly but steadily flooding upon her like an ocean’s tide. Despite many self proclamation of becoming an autonomous woman who only seeks answers from her own heart, Isabel’s vacillating desires for self-independence and status and stability in the European society ultimately make her vulnerable to Madame Merle’s manipulations. Described to be a woman who “knew [knows] how to think – an accomplishment rare in woman…of course, too, she knew [knows] how to feel; this was indeed Madame Merle’s great talent, her most perfect gift (164), Madame Merle serves to represent the decadence of Europe. She is renounced and accomplished; she represents social convention. But she ultimately utilizes her gifts as a means for her own gain. By creating an illusory figure, Madame Merle lures Isabel into believing that Gilbert Osmond is an “altogether above the respectable average,” a man who “had most perception and taste – being artistic through and through (211).” In reality, Osmond is pretentious, dull, and lacking in aesthetic appeals, but because he ‘appears’ to Isabel as clever, she becomes growingly attracted to him. James employment of language, imagery, tone, and structure in this section of the novel is extremely crucial for not only foreshadowing Isabel’s downfall, but also for seeing Isabel’s ultimate decision at the conclusion of the novel. The language and tone James uses to describe Osmond and his surrounding is outwardly foreboding. As she pays Mr. Osmond a visit at his house, “there was something grave and strong in the place; it looked somehow as if, once you were in, you would need an act of energy to get out (217).” This prison-bound image is repeatedly seen when Pansy, Osmond’s daughter is introduced. Pansy has been shielded by the external influences of the European convention; she is raised in a convent in order to live a life in submission and obedience to her father. James repeatedly associates one’s character with the surrounding of their homes. The Touchetts home at the Gardencourt is depicted to be an elegant and sophisticated place, whereas Isabel’s decrepit home back in New York reflects her feeble upbringing and education. Just as Osmond’s house is found to be foreboding, Osmond himself is mysterious, sinister, and ominous. Another image that foreshadows Isabel’s future is James’ portrayal of her as an object. Isabel, who represents a character that is corrupted and restrained by the European society, is described as a “freshened reproduction” of Osmond, her intelligence is to be a “silver plate, not an earthen one – a plate that he might heap up with ripe fruits, to which it would give a decorative value, so that talk might become for him a sort of served dessert (296). Osmond has no aesthetic values; he is living vicariously through Isabel’s reproductions of his values. Isabel’s greatest sacrifice of her own independence and Pansy’s independence comes not out of love for her husband, but out of fears that society will belittle her role as a woman if she chooses to divorce her husband. The representations of Osmond and Madame Merle signify Europe as corrupting forces that eventually strip away Isabel’s last bit of freedom and independence, ultimately leaving her empty and hopeless. Lastly, one of the most prevalent techniques employed to alter the structure of the novel is the use of ellipses. Every time Isabel chooses societal conventions over her own desires of independence, James completely skips over these events and allows peripheral conversations and narrations to disclose to readers the events have happened already. In this way, readers are disconnected from Isabel. By continuing to live a life in submission to her husband, Isabel is no longer herself, “Isabel represented Gilbert Osmond (331).” As the novel concludes, Isabel’s voice disappears as she is forever lost. The Portrait of a Lady is a novel that deals primarily with the conflict between an individual and society. Through James’ excellent utilization of formal elements, such as imagery, language, tone, and structure, the two settings of North America and Europe are easily contrasted. Isabel Archer, an American woman who comes to Europe with a free spirit and high hopes for change and self discovery, loses her values, passions, and truths, as Europe corrupts her innocence. For someone who “used to care so much for the pure truth; and whereas of old she had a great delight in good-humoured argument, in intellectual play, she appeared now to think there was nothing worth people’s either differing about or agreeing upon. Of old she had been curious, and now she was indifferent. The free, keen girl had become quite another person (331).” Isabel chooses to honor her marriage vows and to protect social decency by sacrificing her independence and happiness.
Grooming Her for His Satisfaction: Osmond, Pansy, and Misogyny in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’
Although still a global issue today, misogyny in the time period of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady stemmed from the quantification of a woman’s value from what she can contribute to males rather than her character. The author explores this concept through the dynamic between Gilbert Osmond, the only suitor to capture the protagonist’s attention, and his adolescent daughter, Pansy. His maintenance of authority over her reveals his biased opinion of females.
Osmond maintains an authoritative role over his daughter, Pansy, and takes advantage of his power over her to groom her into a personality shaped by her submission and urge to satisfy figures of superiority. While visiting her daughter at the convent, he is excited by the nuns’ positive feedback concerning his daughter. When he repeats sister Catherine’s compliment of Pansy’s thorough preparation for entrance into society at large, Osmond’s daughter worriedly responds by staring at her father “with her pure young eyes. ‘Am I not meant for you, papa?’” (12). The narrator’s diction of the phrase “pure young eyes” emphasizes Pansy’s impressionability, which her father has manipulated. She eagerly seeks a definite confirmation of her father’s approval after a lifetime of him teaching her to obey. When sister Catherine announces her departure, Pansy is denied the opportunity to plan a visit with her later that evening. The narrator describes that she sits “disappointed, but not protesting. She was evidently impregnated with the idea of submission, which was due to any one who took the tone of authority; and she was a passive spectator of the operation of her fate” (19-21). This brief episode and presentation of the lack of importance the other characters place upon her wants acts as an indicator of Osmond’s constant control over his daughter. She recognizes her disdain for her situation, yet she feels overwhelmingly trapped and unable to escape the restraints that Osmond has placed upon her. Furthermore, the distinct yet figurative not literal use usage of the word “impregnated” insinuates the idea of a lack of choice, which runs parallel to the circumstances of unwanted conception. Lastly, the narrator highlights Pansy’s malleability, caused by her unformed personality. James implies that Pansy has been trained, in a sense, to obey without negotiation any person commanding superiority over her. Over the course of her lifetime, Osmond has coerced Pansy into a fragile state of compliance, which has led her to fruitlessly seek the approval of her father, who represents the ultimate authority in her eyes.
The language used in the comments articulated by Pansy’s father subtly demonstrate his belief that women fill less significant than men, and it is this prejudice of his that causes his extreme dominance over his daughter. When describing Madame Merle to sister Catherine, he explains that she will aid Osmond to “decide whether [his] daughter shall return to [the convent] at the end of the holidays” (2-3). Although this implies that he wants to make a beneficial decision for Pansy, his authoritative behavior serves as a reminder that the decision that Osmond makes will be one that is advantageous to his own wants and predisposition for his daughter. This quick and apathetic mention of his own control over where Pansy will reside indicates that he views her as simply an object incapable of providing any sort of gain for him. When both Madame Merle and sister Catherine voice their appreciation for Pansy in the same way, Osmond shifts the projection of these words directly to his daughter by affirming, “[d]o you hear that, Pansy? You are meant for the world” (11). Although Osmond does not normally speak to his daughter personally, he emphasizes is intentional about emphasizing what his future plans for his daughter are. The phrasing of his opinion of her implies that she is merely a spectacle for others to awe over. This precise diction acts as a testament to Osmond’s limited view of women. The misogynistic undertones of Pansy’s father’s speech display the root of his need for control over his daughter.
Gilbert Osmond requires that he hold the ultimate role of authority over his daughter, Pansy, due to the finite amount of potential that he believes women possess, a view which the implications of his dialogue about Pansy reveal. He views his own daughter as solely a symbol to be presented to the world in order to demonstrate the authority he holds. His incessant demands for power over Pansy find their ramifications in her development of an undeniable and unquenchable urge to please others, especially those in positions of authority. In terms of modern feminism and the fight against misogyny, the unfortunate situation Pansy presents makes a strong case for the continued combat of societal and institutionalized gender roles.
Isabel’s Philanthropic Marriage in The Portrait of a Lady
The characters in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady long for a way into Isabel Archer’s mind. They are particularly curious about her decision to marry her husband, the self-centered and manipulative Gilbert Osmond. James offers more of his characters’ accusations than Isabel’s defenses, but he does give readers glimpses into why she chooses Osmond. She marries him in part because he lacks a strong fortune, and she has money. She believes that her marriage can serve as philanthropy and that giving her wealth to Osmond and his daughter Pansy is the “right” thing to do. In a time where women were expected to be moral beacons and nearly angelic housewife figures, Isabel feels herself divided between these moral expectations and her own desires for independence. Ultimately, she chooses to fulfill societal expectations, and, through her marriage, she molds herself into an “angel of the house.” However, her philanthropy ultimately goes against her values of freedom and independence, leaving her unsatisfied.
From the early descriptions of Isabel’s character, we see that she is deeply concerned with her own virtue. In one of the first lengthy descriptions of her character, the narrator describes her as “stoutly determined not to be hollow” (65). Isabel’s determination manifests in a constant self-evaluation. Isabel prays earnestly for deliverance from dwelling her thoughts on vulgarity (65). And she worries whether she is an “egoist.” She is “always planning out her development, desiring her perfection, observing her progress” (65). Isabel’s determinate nature may make her unique, but her questions about virtue are not out of line for her time period. In the Victorian period society was hyper-focused on virtue, particularly women’s virtue. “The woman question,” what a woman could or should do in society, attracted debate in the 19th century. And some answered this question by focusing on women’s moral roles. Victorian essayist Sarah Stickney Ellis claims that a woman’s main priority in life should not be wealth or education, but “disinterested kindness” (1722). Men, she argues, should focus on “worldly aggrandizement.” Ellis describes how a man is thrust into the corrupt working world, and his wife’s responsibility is to stay home and be the moral center of the household. She writes of a tired husband, “he has thought of the humble monitress who sat alone, guarding the fireside comforts of his distant home; and the remembrance of her character, clothed in moral beauty, has scattered the clouds before his mental vision, and sent him back to that beloved home, a better and wiser man” (1722). The answer to the woman question, for Ellis and others, is that women concern themselves with their moral character, rather than education, wealth, or independence. Thus, Isabel, in her concerns with virtue, may seem to fall in line with an ideal Victorian woman.
However, we also see early on in the text that one of Isabel’s highest values is independence. Rather than wanting to find a husband, Isabel wants to focus on personal freedom and well-being. It is said about her:
Something pure and proud that was in her. . . had hitherto kept her from any great vanity of conjecture on the article of possible husbands. Few of the men she saw seemed worth a ruinous expenditure, and it made her smile to think that one of them should present himself as an incentive to hope and a reward of patience. (65)
Not only does Isabel value the “pure and proud” desire for independence within herself, but she even considers it “vanity” to focus on the possibility of a husband. The men she knows do not seem “worth a ruinous expenditure.” She would rather focus on her own self-improvement.
She “always returned to her theory that a young woman whom after all every one thought clever should begin by getting a general impression of life” (66). This “impression” comes with independence– the ability to be on your own, travel, and learn about the world. Isabel does value morality, but she also has a strong desire to be a learned and independent person.
Holding both morality and independence highly, however, sets Isabel up to be self-divided in a Victorian society. Victorian notions of women’s morality are always within a marriage. Ellis claims that a woman holds the “high holy duty of cherishing in protecting the minor morals of life” (1722). But this duty only manifests itself in marriage. A woman becomes the beacon of character for her husband and her children, not for a larger realm of society. Isabel, wanting desperately to be good but also wanting to be independent, feels she must choose between these two values.
Isabel is given on opportunity to be independent, at least financially, through her cousin Ralph. However, in this position of power, she feels incredibly uncomfortable and undeserving. Isabel presses her cousin Ralph on why his father gives her his money (not knowing that it was Ralph’s decision to give it to her). Ralph remarks that it was father’s generous gift to her, just for “beautifully existing” (227). But Isabel persists that she is undeserving of such a gift. “He liked me too much,” she responds (227). A paradox in her value system, Isabel cannot accept the generosity of others. But she feels like she has to be generous to other people. Victorian women are taught that they must be givers, rather than receivers. They must be the generous ones. As a receiver, Isabel feels useless. Her new-found wealth is not a gift but a burden she must bear. She believes that the more she has, the more she has to give away in order to feel satisfied. Ralph sees the money as a chance for Isabel to be independent, but Isabel sees it as a burden she must give away.
Isabel cannot see independence as being part of the moral good. In Victorian times, independence in women was thought of as uncouth and even frightening. Critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar describe the Victorian notions of independence in their feminist criticism The Madwoman in the Attic. The “angel in the house” mentality is an idea “imposed” on 19th century women. But this imposed angel has a “necessary opposite and double, the ‘monster’ in the house” (17). The independent woman, Gilbert and Gubar argue, is thought of as a “monster” in society. The necessary solution for the independent woman is to “kill” the angel image. They argue that for a woman, “it is the surrender of herself…that is the beautiful angel-woman’s key act, while it is precisely the sacrifice that dooms her both to death and to heaven. For to be selfless and noble is to be dead. A life like that has no story.” These critics argue that an angelic life is no life at all.
Killing the angel in the house, according to Gilbert and Gubar, is the only option for the independent woman. But Isabel does not want this death. To become independent and kill the angel would be to go against her values of morality. She does not want to be a “monster” with no use and no contributions to society. While Isabel does wish for independence, there is no room for her in society to be both independent and good. So a marriage to someone that needs her becomes Isabel’s solution. Rather than kill the angel, Isabel will seek to embody it.
Isabel’s wealth does puts her in a position to be generous. She now has the power to do good in the world. If she can give money to a man who needs it, perhaps someone with a family, Isabel can feel she is making a difference. Gilbert Osmond is presented as the perfect person to whom Isabel can give. He lacks the prestige and appeal that Isabel’s other suitors have, but strangely, this is what draws him to her. Madame Merle describes him as a man with “no career, no name, no position, no fortune, no past, no future, no anything” (203). While her description is deprecating and extreme, it is true that Osmond is without a fortune. Other characters look down on him for his lack of wealth. But the fact that he does not have much money actually attracts Isabel. Osmond is missing something that Isabel feels she can provide. Her other suitors are well off financially and do not need her, and Isabel wants to go where she feels she is needed. In a marriage to other suitors such as Warberton or Goodwood, Isabel would feel useless; in a marriage to Osmond, she can feel useful.
Osmond also has a daughter, Pansy, who needs support, both financially and also maternally. In a marriage to Osmond, Isabel could help Pansy. Isabel could ensure that Pansy is financially supported, but she can also be a female role and maternal figure to her. She sees Pansy as an innocent girl that she can shape: “Pansy was really a blank page, a pure white surface, successfully kept so” (315). Pansy is, in a sense, a blank canvas, someone who needs to be affected. Isabel can help mold Pansy and give her a successful life. Isabel knows that her money could open up more marriage prospects for Pansy. She wants to give her plenty of opportunities. Earlier in the text, Ralph says about Isabel, “She’s as good as her best opportunities” (192). Isabel does believe this, but not for herself. She believes it about Pansy. Isabel’s wealth can serve as fuel for better opportunities.
Isabel’s marriage could not only give Pansy more opportunities, but it could protect her from becoming a victim. Pansy is described as vulnerable, someone who needs care and protection. It is said about her, “To be so tender was to be touching withal, and she could be felt as an easy victim of fate” (315). Isabel wants to protect Pansy from being made a victim. She does not want Pansy to be taken advantage of, and in a sense, money can protect her from that. If she marries Pansy’s father, Isabel can protect Pansy and add to her prospects. And Isabel can add to her personal feelings of validation and fulfillment.
Isabel can thus serve as a benefactor to Osmond and his daughter. The nature of her relationship with Osmond is drawn out in a conversation Isabel has with Mrs. Touchett. Critical of Osmond, Mrs. Touchett says something similar to what Madame Merle said earlier: “He has no money; he has no name; he has no importance” (333). Mrs. Touchett does not see Osmond as a viable suitor for Isabel because lacks wealth and prestige. But Isabel sees all of these “no’s” as an opportunity for giving. She says, “I think I value everything that’s valuable. I care very much for money, and that’s why I wish Mr. Osmond to have a little” (333). Marriage is an opportunity for Isabel to make good use of the money Ralph has given her. Mrs. Touchett responds to Isabel, “Give it to him then; but marry someone else” (333). Isabel, however, cannot separate marriage and giving; they are one in the same to her.
Mrs. Touchett goes so far to ask Isabel if her relationship with Osmond is based on pity: “Do you marry him out of charity?” (333). Isabel dodges this question: “It was my duty to tell you, Aunt Lydia, but I don’t think it’s my duty to explain it to you” (333). The fact that she does not answer the question shows that she is avoiding the truth. She is marrying Osmond for charity but does not want to admit it. Isabel knows that others would look down on her if she admits to this kind of charity. They will see her marriage as nothing but a financial agreement that provides no benefit to Isabel. Mrs. Touchett does tell her, “In your partnership, you’ll bring everything” (333). But Isabel does not see this as a problem; that is precisely what she wants. Isabel only feels satisfied if she is being of use to others. And in her marriage, Isabel feels she is serving the good and helping others, even if it is at a cost to herself.
Isabel uses these justifications while she is deciding to marry Osmond. But she also uses them on the back-end, when she reflects on why she married him and why she chooses to stay. Even into her marriage, Isabel continues to see Osmond as needing her help. It is said of Isabel, “She would launch his boat for him; she would be his providence” (423). Isabel sees Osmond as a passive object without agency, someone who needs his boat launched. She can be his “providence” all throughout her marriage. And the primary means of this providence is through her financial support. She had always thought of her money as “a burden,” and she “was filled with the desire to transfer the weight of it to some other conscience, to some more prepared receptacle” (423). And that someone is Osmond, a person who needs it and a man who can actually use it. The language describing Osmond as a passive object or “receptacle” continues when he is called a “charitable institution” in Isabel’s mind (423). He is literally an institution to whom she can contribute. And the “transfer” of the“weight” of her money to this “institution” effectually “lighten(s) her own conscience (423). Osmond’s marriage relieves Isabel of the burden of her wealthy position, and it fulfills her desire to be useful. Isabel stays with Osmond because she believes she has done good in marrying him.
Isabel even equates the good with love. She believes, “It would be a good thing to love him” (423). On the other end of marriage, Isabel still sees love as a selfless act. She still refuses to describe it in terms of feeling or affection. It is said of her, “And she had loved him, she had so anxiously and yet so ardently given herself–a good deal for what she found in him, but a good deal also for what she brought him and what might enrich the gift” (423). Isabel sees giving herself away as the same thing as love. She does not seek any mutuality in love, only to give of herself generously. And a “good deal” of why she marries Osmond is for “what she brought him,” not what he could give to her. Isabel seeks out the opposite of what many people would look for in a marriage. She ignores what Osmond could do for her and solely focuses on how she can benefit him and Pansy. She seeks always to be a benefactor.
Some may read Isabel’s philanthropic marriage as weak. She is not strong enough to kill the angel image and become independent. But this is not how Isabel views it. In her position as a benefactor, she is actually the more powerful player. She is the one with money, and Osmond is in debt to her. She has brought everything to the marriage, and in her giving, she holds some power over Osmond. In Coventry Patmore’s poem “The Angel in the House,” from where Gilbert and Gubar take their criticism, he describes women as the “best half of creation’s best” (19). Gilbert and Gubar interpret this poem as caging women inside the home. But if women are the “better half” and are solely responsible for morality in marriage, they do hold some power. Isabel has the position of benefactor and moral beacon, and this gives her some power in her marriage. It is thus possible to read Isabel’s marriage as somewhat subversive.
But the question remains whether this is satisfying. Isabel wants control in her marriage, but she ends up relinquishing it. When Isabel marries Osmond, the money is no longer hers, according to Victorian customs. The money belongs to Osmond, and it is his to manipulate as he pleases. And Isabel is left tied to Osmond and unhappy in her marriage. Her equations of the good and love catch up to her, and she finds herself dissatisfied in a loveless marriage. She has given herself away, and while she can say she did the “right” or “good” thing in giving money to a man and daughter who needed it, she sacrifices personal and financial independence. She betrays one value in seeking another.
James thrusts Isabel into what seems a hopeless situation. She must sacrifice one value to fulfill another. But he limits Isabel’s options to argue for more room in society. We need to see independence as part of the moral good for women and give them space in society to affect spheres outside the home. Otherwise we will be left with women who never meet their full potential, women like Isabel, who are lifeless angels.
Ellis, Sarah Stickney. “The Women of England: Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 2, edited by M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. W. W. Norton & Company, 2002, pp. 1721-1723.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literacy Imagination. Yale University, 1979.
James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Patmore, Coventry. “The Angel in the House.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 2, edited by M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. W. W. Norton & Company, 2002, pp. 1723-1724.