The Portrait of a Lady

Use a teaching guide that includes great information about Henry James as well as discussion questions to be used when teaching The Portrait of a Lady, a story about a young American woman asserting her independence and facing destiny.
9 |
10 |
11 |
+ show tags

The Portrait of a Lady

by Henry James

By Geoffrey Moore with Notes by Patricia Crick

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost."
– Henry James

In a letter written to his elder brother, William, in 1878, novelist Henry James wrote: "I don't at all despair yet of doing something fat," meaning a substantial novel – a work of art that would satisfy the stern critic in his brother, who expected nothing less than greatness from his younger sibling. When James drafted this letter to his brother, he was thirty-five years old and had published three novels, one book of essays, and numerous short stories and book reviews. That same year, his short novel Daisy Miller had been serialized in English and American magazines and had proved to be both an enormous critical and financial success for its author. That novel, along with his tale The Turn of the Screw (1898), were among the most popular and remunerative works of his long career.

While he was composing The Portrait of a Lady, James knew that he was producing something masterful – a novel so richly complex and aesthetically perfected that it would guarantee his place in the literary pantheon. In letters to his family comparing the scope of this novel with that of his previous efforts, he referred to it as his "wine unto water" book.

When it was published in November 1881, The Portrait of a Lady was met with an overwhelming critical response. Reviewers compared James's artistry to that of George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ivan Turgenev. In The Nation, one critic wrote: "The Portrait of a Lady is an important work, the most important Mr. James has thus far written, and worthy of far more than mere perusal – worthy of study." The reviewer went on to add of James that "his powers of observation are not only remarkably keen but sleepless as well," echoing James's own advice to writers in his essay The Art of Fiction (1884): "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost."

With its story of a young American woman asserting her independence and, in the words of the author, "affronting her destiny," The Portrait of a Lady is as timeless today as when it was published. It continues and expands upon a favorite theme of James, that of the "American abroad"; and in its heroine, Isabel Archer, James has created one of the most memorable characters in American literature. With its themes of oppression versus freedom, free will versus destiny, the role of women in society, and the clash of American and European cultures, The Portrait of a Lady dealt with many of the crucial issues of its day.

In The Art of Fiction, James wrote that "to 'render' the simplest surface, to produce the most momentary illusion, is a very complicated business"; and while for some, the Jamesian sentence – with its elaborate grammar – can at times be formidable, the sheer balance and beauty of the sentences and scenes in The Portrait of a Lady are unforgettable. For James, language, with its absolute focus, clarity, and attention to detail, to gesture and nuance, was drama enough. "It is an incident," James continues in The Art of Fiction, "for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on a table and look out at you in a certain the same time it is an expression of character."

Modeled partly on his cherished cousin Minnie Temple, the character of Isabel Archer is also based on its creator. Like Isabel, James had traveled across the Atlantic with his family on several occasions by the time he was a teenager.

In a letter to his friend Grace Norton shortly after the publication of The Portrait of a Lady , James wrote: "I don't know why we live...but I believe we can go on living for the reason that (always of course up to a certain point) life is the most valuable thing we know anything about." In The Portrait of a Lady, James presents us with a tragic tale of a woman choosing her own destiny and learning to live with it despite the consequences. Isabel, who at the beginning of the book is referred to by her aunt as "a clever girl – with a strong will and high temper," is a young woman of enormous possibility like the modern America for which she is a metaphor. Isabel desires nothing more or less than freedom. By the conclusion of the novel, Isabel has come to the realization that freedom and maturity are perhaps best defined as the acceptance of one's destiny.

It is important, however, to add that although James is an undeniable part of the literary establishment today, during his own time there were critics who felt his work was elitist in nature and aimed exclusively at the aristocratic; that he had not "story enough"; and that he avoided dealing directly with certain kinds of political and moral issues as did contemporaries like French novelist Emile Zola. With its elements of intrigue as well as its feminist argument, The Portrait of a Lady is the sharpest rebuke to that criticism. Written at what many critics consider the zenith of James's career, the novel deals with profound questions such as the extent to which Isabel's situation can be viewed as tragic; and the emotional cost of simply "living" one's life. These ideas are embedded in moments of true feeling, such as in the final scene between Isabel and the dying Ralph, where the emotional restraint Isabel has shown throughout the better part of the story explodes in a sudden redemptive and cathartic moment.

Written at the time when his literary star was ascending and before the precipitous drop in his acclaim during the mid 1890s, The Portrait of a Lady represents James as a prose stylist for whom experience was, in his own words, "an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spiderweb of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its converts the very pulses of the air into revelations."

Return to Top


Henry James, the second child of Henry and Mary James, was born in April 1843 in New York City. The grandchild of one of the three richest men in New York (William James, an immigrant from Ireland with a tobacco fortune estimated at $3 million), he was raised in an atmosphere of affluence. Shortly after his birth, James's father embarked with his family on a trip to Europe, where he suffered a nervous breakdown and underwent what he later described as a spiritual epiphany. This extreme mental and emotional sensitivity was common to most members of the James clan, who viewed themselves as a kind of metaphorical nation unto themselves - with their own eccentricities and rules made permissible by wealth, privilege, and intellect. At different times throughout their lives, Henry's brother, the philosopher and scientist William James, suffered from a nervous condition, as did their sister, Alice.

Apart from psychological ailments, the family also shared a high degree of intellectual pursuit. Henry Sr. was a contemporary and friend of Emerson and Thoreau; and William was to become one of the founding fathers in the field of psychology.

As a child, James was, in the words of his father, "a devourer of libraries" and devoted his time to various artistic activities such as visiting art galleries and attending the theater. By the time he was fourteen, James and his family had traveled across the ocean twice - an uncommon occurrence in those days - in search of what James's father felt would be a more progressive European education for his young family.

Although he had intended to practice law, James withdrew from Harvard in 1863 and embarked instead on a career in letters, submitting his first stories and reviews for publication in The Nation and The North American Review. In 1865, at the age of twenty-two, James published his first short story in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly. By 1872, his labors as a writer had come to fruition, and he was at last able to live off the modest proceeds of his work - writing, in addition to his fiction, travel essays and reviews while living in Rome, Florence, and Paris. There, he would soon meet and become friendly with the great novelists of his day: Flaubert, Zola, and Turgenev.

From the mid-1870s until the end of his life, James chose to live abroad, partly for reasons of economy (he felt New York was too expensive) and partly as a buffer from his devoted yet intense family. Of his decision to live in London, he wrote: "The flower of art blooms only where the soil is deep." With the publication of Daisy Miller, James became an international celebrity in much demand. According to his journal, the year following its publication he dined out 107 times in London in the winter alone.

Henry James was thirty-eight when The Portrait of a Lady was published to glowing critical notices; and although the book did not sell particularly well (he always made more money from magazine serializations), that year (1881) he made more than $5,525. James wrote to his brother: "If I keep along here patiently for a certain time I rather think I shall become a (sufficiently) great man." By the early 1890s, James concentrated on writing for the theater, for the most part unsuccessfully. On opening night at the curtain call of his play Guy Domville in 1895, the audience booed for fifteen minutes. That year, to his friend William D. Howells, he wrote: "I shall never again write a long novel; but I hope to write six immortal short ones." A scant fifteen years after his ascendancy, the critics began to turn against James. Unfortunately, James's ornate style and choice of subject matter were considered more representative of the Victorian era than the modern age at hand.

Then in 1898, his novella The Turn of the Screw was serialized and proved a popular success, bringing him more money than he had seen since the publication of Daisy Miller. At the turn of the century, James was to meet and form an important relationship with the American author Edith Wharton, whose novel The Age of Innocence (1920) was in part an homage to James and The Portrait of a Lady. The last fifteen years of his life marked a late flowering of his style and produced three of his finest novels, Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl, which many critics believe represent the acme of his art. Despite his popularity when the New York Edition of his collected works was published (1907-1909), James was disheartened to learn later of its poor sales.

Arguably one of the greatest writers in the English language, James, who produced a total of twenty-two novels and one hundred twelve stories, died in February 1916. Like the French writer Marcel Proust, whose sensibility he shared, James's work, with its elaborate architecture of style, tone of voice, and narrative - a polished art with its attention to gesture - was to leave its indelible mark on the history of fiction.

Return to Top

The World of Henry James, by Gore Vidal
Excerpted from the Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Golden Bowl

In the spring of 1880, Mrs. Henry Adams confided to her diary:

It is high time Henry James was ordered home by his family. He is too good a fellow to be spoiled by injudicious old ladies in London - and in the long run they would like him all the better for knowing and living in his own country. He had better go to Cheyenne and run a hog ranch. The savage notices of his Hawthorne in American papers, all of which he brings me to read, are silly and overshoot the mark in their bitterness, but for all that he had better not hang around Europe much longer if he wants to make a lasting literary reputation.

That same year the egregious Bret Harte observed, sadly, that Henry James "looks, acts, thinks like an Englishman and writes like an Englishman."

But the thirty-seven-year-old James was undeterred by public or private charges of un-Americanism; he had every intention of living the rest of a long and productive life in England. Since he was, in the phrase of his older brother, William, like all the Jameses a native only of the James family, the Wyoming pig farmer that might have been preferred rooting, as it were (Oh, as it were! - one of his favorite phrases: a challenge to the reader to say, As it were not?), for those truffles that are to be found not beneath ancient oak trees in an old country but in his own marvelous and original consciousness. James did nothing like an Englishman - or an American. He was a great fact in himself, a new world, a terra incognita that he would devote all his days to mapping for the rest of us. In 1880, James's American critics saw only the fussy bachelor expatriate, growing fat from too much dining out; none detected the sea-change that was being undergone by what had been, until then, an essentially realistic American novelist whose subject had been Americans in Europe, of whom the most notorious was one Daisy Miller, eponymous heroine of his first celebrated novel (1878).

But by 1880, James was no longer able - or willing? - to render American characters with the same sureness of touch. For him, the novel must now be something other than the faithful detailing of familiar types engaged in mating rituals against carefully noted backgrounds. Let the Goncourts and the Zolas do that sort of thing. James would go further, much as Flaubert had tried to do; he would take the usual matter of realism and heighten it; and he would try to create something that no writer in English had ever thought it possible to do with a form as inherently loose and malleable as the novel: he would aim at perfection. While James's critics were complaining that he was no longer American and could never be English, James was writing The Portrait of a Lady, as nearly perfect a work as a novel can be. From 1881, James was the master of the novel in English in a way that no one had ever been before; or has ever been since.

Return to Top


1) Given the title of this book, do you think The Portrait of a Lady provides an accurate portrayal of women of that day, or is it more a portrait of one woman (Isabel) in particular? What do you make of Isabel's remark "I don't want to begin life by marrying. There are other things a woman can do"? Is this statement true, given the role of women at the time the story takes place? Do you find James's portrayal of women to be relevant today?

2) Early in the novel, Mrs. Touchett refers to Isabel as "a clever girl with a strong will and a high temper." Compare this to the ways in which Ralph Touchett, Lord Warburton, Caspar Goodwood, and Gilbert Osmond view Isabel.

3) In Chapter Five, Isabel comments to Ralph, "It's not absolutely necessary to suffer; we were not made for that." Discuss the extent to which you think James believes this statement is true. How does Ralph's terminal illness and unrequited love for Isabel illustrate this theme? What, to Isabel, is the value of suffering when she learns of Osmond's betrayal with Madame Merle? And what do you make of James's comment toward the end of the book that Isabel "needed to feel that her unhappiness should not have come to her through her own fault"?

4) What do you think of Isabel's comment to Caspar that "there's no generosity without some sacrifice"? Discuss the role of sacrifice with respect to Isabel, Ralph, and Pansy Osmond. What is Pansy's role in the story?

5) When James writes that Isabel "liked [Lord Warburton] too much to marry him," what does he mean? Isabel wants freedom; how would marrying Warburton impinge on that?

6) In Chapter 17, Isabel likens her lack of plans for the future to "a swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling, with four horses over roads that one can't see - that's my idea of happiness." Discuss this statement. Does Isabel truly believe this, and to what extent is it representative of her point of view at the conclusion of the story?

7) At one point, Henrietta says to Isabel, "The peril for you is that you live too much in the world of your own dreams. You're not enough in contact with reality." Is this true? If so, is Isabel aware of this? If this is true, why does Ralph give her enough money to make her wealthy? When Isabel says to Ralph, "A large fortune means freedom, and I'm afraid of that," what do you imagine Isabel means, when she has just realized her deepest desires?

8) "Still who could say what men ever were looking for? They looked for what they found; they knew what pleased them only when they saw it." Discuss what each of the principal male characters (Ralph, Osmond, Warburton, and Goodwood) wants from Isabel. How does the author use each to reveal a facet of Isabel's character?

9) How does Ralph's death affect Isabel? What does it afford her? And what do you think James means when he writes that Ralph "made her feel the good of the world; he made her feel what might have been"? How so?

10) What do you think first attracts Isabel to Osmond? What makes her stay with him, given his view of women in general and Isabel in particular ("too many ideas")? What do you think James is getting at when he writes of Isabel that "she had no opinions - none that she would not have been eager to sacrifice in the satisfaction of feeling herself loved for it." At what point do you feel this is true for Isabel?

11) Why do you think James lets Caspar, who in many ways is a minor character, share the final scene with Isabel? What is revealed about Isabel in this scene?

12) To what extent do you feel the story of Isabel Archer is a tragedy? Do you think she considers it so? Does her return to Osmond signify failure or something else? Do you think she is merely realizing her desire to live life to the fullest, to experience what she calls "the usual chances and dangers" and thereby fulfill her destiny? Does the author view Isabel's situation differently than she herself does?

Return to Top


The Ambassadors
Edited with an Introduction by Harry Levin

One of Henry James's three final novels, this tale, set in Paris, is a finely drawn portrait of a man's late awakening to the importance of morality.

The American
Edited with an Introduction by William Spengemann

This story of an American millionaire rejected by the family of the European aristocrat he loves is James's first novel to dramatize the social relationship between the Old World and the New.

The Awkward Age
Edited with an Introduction by Ronald Blythe

This study of innocence exposed to corrupting influences has been praised for its natural dialogue and the delicacy of feeling it conveys.

The Bostonians
Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Charles Anderson

In this story of a Mississippi lawyer, a radical feminist, and their struggle for exclusive possession of a beautiful woman, James explores what it means to be fully human, for both men and women.

Daisy Miller
Edited with an Introduction by Geoffrey Moore

James's first novel to reach great popularity, this is also the first of his great portraits of an American woman.

The Europeans
Edited with an Introduction by Tony Tanner

This novel subtly examines the effect of two slightly raffish Europeans upon their cousins in rural Boston in 1830.

The Golden Bowl
With an Introduction by Gore Vidal

A work unique among James's novels in that "things come out right for the characters," this is the story of the alliance between Italian aristocracy and American millionaires.

The Princess Casamassima
Edited with an Introduction by Derek Brewer

A young man involved in the world of revolutionary politics falls in love with the beautiful Princess Casamassima and finds that he must make a choice between honor and desire.

Roderick Hudson
Edited with an Introduction by Geoffrey Moore

In his first full-length novel, James writes with verve and passion about an egotistical young sculptor and the mentor who tries to help him develop his talents.

The Sacred Fount
Edited with an Introduction by John Lyon

Disconcerting, outrageous, perhaps even a Jamesian joke, The Sacred Fount is James's most audacious work of fiction, evoking an esoteric, idiosyncratic world where the author is fully in control.

Washington Square
Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Brian Lee

This early novel, set in New York City, is a spare and intensely moving story of divided loyalties and innocence betrayed.

What Maisie Knew
Edited with an Introduction by Paul Theroux

In creating a portrait of a young girl raised in a world of intrigue and betrayal, James sketches with subtle irony the actions and motives of her corrupt adult companions.

The Wings of the Dove
Edited with an Introduction by John Bayley

The story of a rich, lonely, and gravely ill young woman searching for happiness, this beautifully written novel deals with human greed and tragedy.

Penguin Classics wishes to thank and credit the following writers and books for information used in creating this Reading Group Guide:

Leon Edel, Henry James, The Conquest of London 1870-1881, New York, J. P. Lippincott Company, 1962.
Henry James, Complete Stories 1898-1910, New York, The Library of America, Literary Classics of the United States, 1996.
Henry James, The Portable Henry James, Edited by Morton Dauwen Zabel, Revised by Lyall H. P. Powers, New York, Viking Penguin, 1979.
Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady , A Norton Critical Edition, Edited by Robert D. Bamberg, New York, W. W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Return to Top

About the author

TeacherVision Staff

TeacherVision Editorial Staff

The TeacherVision editorial team is comprised of teachers, experts, and content professionals dedicated to bringing you the most accurate and relevant information in the teaching space.

loading gif