Autonomy and Social Conventions in Henry James’s Novel: ‘the Portrait of a Lady’.

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Henry James’s Portrait of a lady is novel about an American woman confronting her destiny in Europe. In this paper we will mainly focus on the themes of freedom and destiny. A destiny, that Isabel Archer affronted but found extremely overwhelming. Was she entirely responsible of losing her independence in the time she lived? Can she still change the outcome of her marriage? The portrait of a lady is said to be ‘’a rather existentialist novel, as Isabel is very committed to living with the consequences of her choice with integrity but also a sort of stubbornness.’’ (James, 6) What Henry James is trying to analyze with his novel is the importance of human consciousness, independence, social customs and motivation. In the next paragraphs we will discuss Isabel Archer’s character with the purpose of fully understand these human virtues.

Isabel Archer is a woman in her early twenties, originated from Albany, New York, that has a great sense of freedom. Her mother died when she was a young girl, and her father raised her. Her father always had a distant relationship with his daughter resulting Isabel growing up reading books all the time. Her father also made sure that his daughter would have a proper education and encouraged her independence. This resulted to an adult Isabel that was highly independent, confident, and well educated. Isabel was a very beautiful woman and men were always around her. She received a proposition of marriage from Caspar Goodwood. Even though she was drawn by Mr Goodwood, her independence made her fear him. She felt that if she married him she would sacrifice her freedom and her current state of mind and living. Although in the Victorian Era women had one purpose, to get married, Isabel declined the proposal and decided to visit Europe with her aunt Mrs. Touchette for about a year in order to get to know her wants and needs better. In England, Lord Warburton also asked her hand to marriage, but she declined once again due to her freedom. Isabel is ‘’a young woman negotiating a treacherous adult world’’. (Luckhurst, 7) In her mind she can understand she is passing up a great social opportunity by not marrying Warburton, but she still believes that a marriage would damage her freedom and independence. After the death of her uncle, Mr. Touchette, with the help of her Cousin Ralph Isabel inherits a fortune, which will allow her to live the life she wants without having to get married thus losing her sense of independence. ‘’The deus ex machina of her uncle’s bequest suddenly enfranchises Isabel from the need to sell herself on the marriage market like other Jamesian heroines, and sets her ‘free’ ‘’ (Izzo, 107) Isabel changes. Her friend Henrietta, a feminist American journalist who does not believe that women need men in order to be happy insists that Europe has made her different. Portrait of a lady is novel dedicated on the conflict between individualism and social convention; the individualism-collectivism cultural syndrome is a major theme of this novel. ‘’In collectivist cultures people give priority to the goals of their in-groups’’ (Triandis, 909) meaning the family, instead ‘’in individualist societies people are autonomous and independent’’. (Triandis 909) Henrietta is a symbol of America's democratic values throughout the book. She is exactly what Isabel used to be before adopting the social propriety of Europe, autonomous and independent. Our heroin travels to Rome with her new friend Madam Merle and her aunt, Mrs. Touchette. There, with the help of Madame Merle she meets an English man, Gilbert Osmond. Osmond is a cruel, narcissistic gentleman of no particular social standing or wealth, who seduces Isabel. Isabel has a conscious commitment to individualism, but after her coming to Europe, as stated above, she also has an unconscious desire for the comfort, safety, and stability of a marriage. Mr. Osmond asks Isabel to marry him and Isabel ‘’allows her need for social convention...
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