Portrait of a Lady

Topics: Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady, Marriage Pages: 5 (2203 words) Published: February 8, 2012
Examine the treatment of the theme “marital relations” in The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady is considered as Henry James’ masterpiece. The story revolves around Isabel Archer. She is a young American who meets up her destiny. She values her freedom. She does not want to get married because she thinks that marriage will suppress her independence. James handles the theme of how a young protagonist attains maturation. The Portrait of a Lady relates us how Isabel grows up to explore the world by herself. When the novel opens, Isabel is introduced as “a young person of many theories; her imagination was remarkably well.” James often calls her “our heroine”. Thus, his personification helps to build up a healthy rapport between the protagonist and the reader. The Portrait of a lady is a realistic novel. At the same time we find a ‘stylized’ form of a narrative as James borrows from fairy tales, folk tales and legends. The heart of the novel is where Isabel has to choose from a series of suitors. She encounters a tragedy when she chooses the wrong man in her life and then she has to enter into a miserable life. James draws comparisons of Isabel to the ‘Christian Fall.’ The novel opens at Gardencourt; “It stood upon a low hill....” The name, itself carries the glory and the grandeur of the house of the Touchet s’. Isabel is brought into the British English Upper-class society. It is the most stable and safest place for Isabel. It is described at a length and the reader almost feels of it as the paradise . Isabel is first introduced to us at the Gardencourt. She lives virtually by herself. She is very independent, intellectual, beautiful, and a well read charming young woman. She is first seen through the eyes of Ralph Touchett. “Ralph looked at her for a moment; she was unexpectedly pretty.”(15) Isabel is portrayed as a woman of unearthly beauty and grace. Her state is similar to that of Eve. Like Eve, she is destined with a ‘flaw’ in her character which leads her to her destruction. James echoes his prediction several times in the beginning of the narration; “She had an infinite hope that she would never do anything wrong.” It is quite ironic and unexpected that she chooses the wrong person and faces a tragedy in her life. James highlights the notion of the ‘innocence’ when he moulds the character of Isabel. Her ‘fall’ is the fall from Gardencourt. Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond play the role of the evil. Madame Merle is compared to the ‘serpent’ that spoils and lures Isabel towards her destruction. After Isabel’s fall from the Gardencourt, she learns the world. Enlightenment dawns on her. She learns the reality of life through suffering and experience. Isabel as someone, who adores her freedom, thinks of marriage as a tie that would ruin her independence. When Lord Warburton proposes her, she has no good reason to reject him. She admits that she likes him; “I like him extremely. I am very free to admit that. But I don’t wish to marry anyone just now.” (105) Lord Warburton has money, position, kindliness and in addition he has an imagination enough to become radical in politics. He surfaces as the ‘fairy prince’ who is rapt with love for Isabel. Here we do not see a rational argument as to why she should reject him. It is plausible that she refuses him, once again to secure her liberty. She refuses him because he belongs to an upper social stratum. She fears that she might have to leave her values behind in order to move with the society in which lord Warburton lives. In her opinion, there is more that a woman can do other than getting married. When Ralph reasons out as to why she should refuse Lord Warburton, she makes a remarkable statement; “I don’t want to begin life by marrying. There are other things a woman can do.”(139) It is ironic when she acts quite on the contrary after her encounter with Osmond. Caspar Goodwood is Isabel’s American admirer. Isabel is not in love with him, but it is obvious...
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