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.”
1 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