Isabel Archer, the heroine of the novel ‘The Portrait of a lady’, is a young American woman who must choose between her
independent spirit and the demands of mid-nineteenth century European social conventions. She unexpectedly inherits a fortune, which in the beginning of the novel, seems to have freed her from the need to marry.
After propagating her quest for independence, she rejects two suitors, Casper Goodwood and Lord Warburton but then falls in love with and marries Gilbert Osmond, a resident of Italy, who, she finds out, has married her only for her money. He treats her as an object –as part of his art collection. However, when Isabel comes back to Gardencourt on her cousin Ralph’s death after some confrontation with Osmond, she is approached by Casper Goodwood for the one last time. At this point, Isabel must decide whether to honour her marriage vows and preserve social propriety or to quit her miserable marriage and escape to a happier and more independent life. In the end, Isabel chooses to return to Osmond and maintain her marriage. She seems to be motivated by a sense of social duty which Henry James describes as, “a very straight path”.
Why does Isabel return to Osmond is one of the critical questions which many critics have posed. This in the words of Dorothea Krook, is “… somewhat artificially created for modern critics by a failure in critical perspective which arises from disposition to ignore or minimize the context, historical and dramatic, in which Isabel Archer’s final decision is made.”
Dorothea Krook, The Ordeal of Consciousness in Henry James, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962, p.357.
170Journal of European Studies
Henry James was a pioneer in making human consciousness as the centre of the plot to build a novel. He did this with dexterity. He even dared to present the sense of spontaneous moral obligation of the young American girl as a victory over the European society of the era. His aim was apparently to highlight the difference between American spontaneity and institutionalized European manners to reach what he calls “sublime consensus”
He wanted to symbolize .
through this act how spontaneity in a given situation was related to righteousness or greed.
Anderson has pointed out, “James’ morality did not flow out of the demands of his art; that those who think it did make him less substantial and more anomalous than he was; and that the assertion itself stems from a failure to investigate his American heritage.”
In fact James could not condemn Europe because it
has evolved over centuries and has a deep rooted history which has been thoroughly expressed in art, literature and politics.
This is his main theme around which revolves his setting of an international scene, mainly Europe vs. America. James through his characters presents a vivid contrast between cultures, ethnicity, and ethics. The characters in his novel act and react in a particular social milieu.
The Portrait of a Lady best illustrates these themes and perhaps, indicates that in spite of James’ deep appreciation of the beauty of the European scene he nursed the fear that the European conventions could easily be substituted for principles, creating an aimless and artificial existence based upon standards of taste rather than morality. In the course of this discussion, by scrutinizing James’ own life, other works and experiences we would be able to find out the reasons of this line of thought.
Quentin Anderson, The American Henry James, New York: Rutgers University Press, 1957, p.26.
171Journal of European Studies
Henry James had a fully developed attitudes towards European culture. This was mostly based on his own experiences in the households in which he had lived and the people he had known on the continent. Henry...