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MonkeyNotes-Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
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THEMES

In The Portrait of a Lady Henry James explores the difficulty negotiating between individual liberty and the constraints of social conventions. He locates these opposing forces in America and Europe respectively. However, the equation isn’t as simple as that--America equals liberty while Europe equals social constraint. James divides Europe in his moral universe. England constitutes the middle ground between the ungrounded freedom of America and the extreme restraint of Italy. It is no mere chance that James chooses a woman as the protagonist of a novel with such a moral landscape since women are so much the repository of the social values of a culture, functioning both to enforce social norms and to reproduce them.

Isabel Archer is one more of the many innocent Americans with whom writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries found themselves preoccupied. Her innocence is the primary element of her sense of her freedom. In other words, James seems to be saying that Isabel only thinks she’s free and capable of living her life freely. In America she can nurture these fantasies. She has spent a childhood being neglected by her father, neglect that is couched in terms of freedom. She has been free to read anything in the library and she has done so, but has been unable to balance freedom and the discipline necessary to get through the formal study of anything. Sent to school as a young girl, she decided quickly that it was not the place for her and she was allowed to stop going. In her adult life in America, she seems to have no place to go besides marriage to the ever stiff Caspar Goodwood. She sits alone in the little-used library of her grandmother’s almost abandoned house. Both of her sisters have married quite conventionally despite their free childhood. There’s no reason to think Isabel wouldn’t have done the same if not for her aunt’s timely rescue. In the American scene then, James demonstrates that unrestrained freedom will lead the protagonist nowhere. She will be isolated and bored. She will not progress in her studies because she will have no direction. She will be wasted on a marriage to a man so inarticulate that he cannot express his feelings in any terms other than proprietary ones.


In England, Isabel is indulged by the kindly Mr. Touchett, his kindly son Ralph and their kindly neighbor Lord Warburton to express all the ideas she can muster. In England she sees two kinds of women. One kind is represented by the sisters of Lord Warburton. They are so restrained and so tamed that they seem almost insubstantial. Despite her own beliefs that the free life is the best life for a woman, Isabel is attracted to these women and finds their life a lovely one. For their part, the Misses Molyneux find Isabel perfectly charming and seem to find in her a kindred spirit. The second kind of woman represented in England for Isabel Archer is Mrs. Touchett, an American ex-patriot who lives in Florence, Italy, and visits her husband for a month out of each year in England. She has not been accepted by the English aristocracy as her husband and son have. While she lives according to the strictest adherence to established social proprieties, she has made up so many of her own social proprieties that she doesn’t fit into English society. Aside from Henrietta Stackpole, Mrs. Touchett is the most independent female character in the novel and she is so depicted that the reader is not encouraged to see her as a possible model for Isabel Archer to emulate. When Isabel gets the chance to make England her home, she rejects it, imagining her life as the wife of the eminent Lord Warburton to be life in a gilded cage. Even Mr. Touchett doesn’t think Isabel should marry Lord Warburton.

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