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A Woman’s Journey from North America to Europe in The Portrait of a Lady

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In psychology, one of the most frequently debated topics deals with the issue of environmental and societal impact on one’s upbringing. It is commonly believed that society plays a tremendous role in how one behaves and how one readily conforms to the environment he is raised in. For instance, in a society where propriety is esteemed upon, one is expected to behave in a well-fashioned manner. In Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer, the novel’s protagonist, serves as an epitome of one who mirrors her surroundings. As she travels from North America to Europe, her behaviors, perspectives, values, and desires begin to change greatly. Through the utilization of formal elements, such as imagery, language, structure, and tone, Henry James clearly delineates Europe as a country of sophistication and decadence, and North America as a country of innocence and individualism.

In the opening lines of the novel, James captures the essence of the European social conventions with this image: “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea (17).” James takes a simple social custom of English tea ceremony and embellishes the tone and language of the passage to provide readers with a picture of the European upper class. This image of orderliness and aristocracy is quickly interrupted as Isabel enters the novel. From the inception of the novel, Isabel Archer is depicted as one of the “American girls who was used to a great deal of deference and a high spirit (27).” Peripheral characters such as Lord Warburton and Ralph are taken back by the liveliness of Isabel; Lord Warburton exclaims that Isabel is his “idea of an interesting woman (30) and Ralph envies her desire for independence. Mrs. Touchett views Isabel as a girl who “thinks she knows a great deal of the world – like most American girls; but like most American girls she’s ridiculously mistaken (47).” Isabel is clearly not in sync with the European traditions of social conventions. By juxtaposing the two representatives of North America and Europe through imagery and language, James reveals to readers that not only is there a stark contrast between the two settings, but there is also a disparity between the characters that come from the differing settings.

Similarly, James frequently interchanges the perspectives in which readers view Isabel. By utilizing the structure of the “portrait” as the organizing image of the novel, James is showing us Isabel’s actions from her perspective and voice. She makes known to her readers that “her deepest enjoyment is to feel the continuity between the movements of her own soul and the agitations of the world (41).” He, however, also uses tangential points of views to disclose to readers the impressions Isabel makes on those surrounding her. By casting this new light on Isabel, James not only strengthens Isabel’s character and the American optimism, innocence, and independence she embodies, but also divulges elements of her character that will prove to be incompatible in Europe.

As Isabel’s stay in Europe lengthens, readers begin to see with more clarity the struggles she faces between independence and European social conventions. Isabel deems that she is an independent person, with utmost passion for liberty, exploration, and adventures. She shies away from romantic attractions and declines marriage proposals because they would ultimately curtail her autonomy. “At the risk of adding to the evidence of her self-sufficiency it must be said that there had been moments when this possibility of admiration by a personage represented to her an aggression almost to the degree of an affront, quite to the degree of an inconvenience (94).” Although Isabel never defines the independence she yearns for, by consistently rejecting proposals from Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood, Isabel suggests that individual self-sufficiency contradicts a traditional marriage. On the other hand, Isabel also has a desire to conform to the European society. She is attracted to the calm and conventional lifestyle of the Molyneux and she envies Warburton’s sisters for their docility and submissiveness. Because Isabel was raised without an authority figure in her childhood, she innately hungers for security, stability, safety, and protection, therefore, giving her the propensity to easily conform and accept social conventions. Although she reasons that marrying Lord Warburton would “fail to support any enlightened prejudice in favour of the free exploration of life that she hitherto entertained or was now capable of entertaining (101),” she now embraces the idea that “with whatever qualifications one would, Lord Warburton had offered her a great opportunity (101).” Marrying into the English aristocracy would denote a social opportunity for Isabel, giving her status, security, and stability. Isabel’s changed way of thinking manifests to readers that Isabel’s American values are quickly dissipating as European romanticism and idealism are slowly but steadily flooding upon her like an ocean’s tide.

Despite many self proclamation of becoming an autonomous woman who only seeks answers from her own heart, Isabel’s vacillating desires for self-independence and status and stability in the European society ultimately make her vulnerable to Madame Merle’s manipulations. Described to be a woman who “knew [knows] how to think – an accomplishment rare in woman…of course, too, she knew [knows] how to feel; this was indeed Madame Merle’s great talent, her most perfect gift (164), Madame Merle serves to represent the decadence of Europe. She is renounced and accomplished; she represents social convention. But she ultimately utilizes her gifts as a means for her own gain. By creating an illusory figure, Madame Merle lures Isabel into believing that Gilbert Osmond is an “altogether above the respectable average,” a man who “had most perception and taste – being artistic through and through (211).” In reality, Osmond is pretentious, dull, and lacking in aesthetic appeals, but because he ‘appears’ to Isabel as clever, she becomes growingly attracted to him. James employment of language, imagery, tone, and structure in this section of the novel is extremely crucial for not only foreshadowing Isabel’s downfall, but also for seeing Isabel’s ultimate decision at the conclusion of the novel.

The language and tone James uses to describe Osmond and his surrounding is outwardly foreboding. As she pays Mr. Osmond a visit at his house, “there was something grave and strong in the place; it looked somehow as if, once you were in, you would need an act of energy to get out (217).” This prison-bound image is repeatedly seen when Pansy, Osmond’s daughter is introduced. Pansy has been shielded by the external influences of the European convention; she is raised in a convent in order to live a life in submission and obedience to her father. James repeatedly associates one’s character with the surrounding of their homes. The Touchetts home at the Gardencourt is depicted to be an elegant and sophisticated place, whereas Isabel’s decrepit home back in New York reflects her feeble upbringing and education. Just as Osmond’s house is found to be foreboding, Osmond himself is mysterious, sinister, and ominous.

Another image that foreshadows Isabel’s future is James’ portrayal of her as an object. Isabel, who represents a character that is corrupted and restrained by the European society, is described as a “freshened reproduction” of Osmond, her intelligence is to be a “silver plate, not an earthen one – a plate that he might heap up with ripe fruits, to which it would give a decorative value, so that talk might become for him a sort of served dessert (296). Osmond has no aesthetic values; he is living vicariously through Isabel’s reproductions of his values. Isabel’s greatest sacrifice of her own independence and Pansy’s independence comes not out of love for her husband, but out of fears that society will belittle her role as a woman if she chooses to divorce her husband. The representations of Osmond and Madame Merle signify Europe as corrupting forces that eventually strip away Isabel’s last bit of freedom and independence, ultimately leaving her empty and hopeless.

Lastly, one of the most prevalent techniques employed to alter the structure of the novel is the use of ellipses. Every time Isabel chooses societal conventions over her own desires of independence, James completely skips over these events and allows peripheral conversations and narrations to disclose to readers the events have happened already. In this way, readers are disconnected from Isabel. By continuing to live a life in submission to her husband, Isabel is no longer herself, “Isabel represented Gilbert Osmond (331).” As the novel concludes, Isabel’s voice disappears as she is forever lost.

The Portrait of a Lady is a novel that deals primarily with the conflict between an individual and society. Through James’ excellent utilization of formal elements, such as imagery, language, tone, and structure, the two settings of North America and Europe are easily contrasted. Isabel Archer, an American woman who comes to Europe with a free spirit and high hopes for change and self discovery, loses her values, passions, and truths, as Europe corrupts her innocence. For someone who “used to care so much for the pure truth; and whereas of old she had a great delight in good-humoured argument, in intellectual play, she appeared now to think there was nothing worth people’s either differing about or agreeing upon. Of old she had been curious, and now she was indifferent. The free, keen girl had become quite another person (331).” Isabel chooses to honor her marriage vows and to protect social decency by sacrificing her independence and happiness.

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A Woman’s Journey from North America to Europe in the Portrait of a Lady. (2018, Jun 15). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from
“A Woman’s Journey from North America to Europe in the Portrait of a Lady.” GradesFixer, 15 Jun. 2018,
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