The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady is a novel by Henry James, first published as a serial in The Atlantic Monthly and Macmillan's Magazine in 1880–81 and then as a book in 1881. It is one of James's most popular long novels and is regarded by critics as one of his finest.

The Portrait of a Lady
First edition (US)
AuthorHenry James
CountryUnited Kingdom
United States
PublisherHoughton, Mifflin and Company, Boston
Macmillan and Co., London
Publication date
29 October 1881 (Houghton)
16 November 1881 (Macmillan)
Media typePrint (hardback and paperback)
PagesHoughton: 520
Macmillan: volume one, 266; volume two, 253; volume three, 248

The Portrait of a Lady is the story of a spirited young American woman, Isabel Archer, who, in "confronting her destiny",[1] finds it overwhelming. She inherits a large amount of money and subsequently becomes the victim of Machiavellian scheming by two American expatriates. Like many of James's novels, it is set in Europe, mostly England and Italy. Generally regarded as the masterpiece of James's early period,[2] this novel reflects James's continuing interest in the differences between the New World and the Old, often to the detriment of the former. It also treats in a profound way the themes of personal freedom, responsibility, and betrayal.

Plot summary

Isabel Archer, from Albany, New York, is invited by her maternal aunt, Lydia Touchett, to visit Lydia's rich husband, Daniel, at his estate near London, following the death of Isabel's father. There, Isabel meets her uncle, her friendly invalid cousin Ralph Touchett, and the Touchetts' robust neighbour, Lord Warburton.

Isabel later declines Warburton's sudden proposal of marriage. She also rejects the hand of Caspar Goodwood, the charismatic son and heir of a wealthy Boston mill owner. Although Isabel is drawn to Caspar, her commitment to her independence precludes such a marriage, which she feels would demand the sacrifice of her freedom.

The elder Touchett grows ill and, at the request of his son, Ralph, leaves much of his estate to Isabel upon his death. With her large legacy, Isabel travels the Continent and meets an American expatriate, Gilbert Osmond, in Florence. Although Isabel had previously rejected both Warburton and Goodwood, she accepts Osmond's proposal of marriage, unaware that it has been actively promoted by the accomplished but untrustworthy Madame Merle, another American expatriate, whom Isabel had met at the Touchetts' estate.

Isabel and Osmond settle in Rome, but their marriage rapidly sours due to Osmond's overwhelming egotism and lack of genuine affection for his wife. Isabel grows fond of Pansy, Osmond's presumed daughter by his first marriage, and wants to grant her wish to marry Edward Rosier, a young art collector.

The snobbish Osmond would prefer that Pansy accept the proposal of Warburton, who had previously proposed to Isabel. Isabel suspects, however, that Warburton may just be feigning interest in Pansy to get close to Isabel again, and the conflict creates even more strain within the unhappy marriage.

Isabel then learns that Ralph is dying at his estate in England and prepares to go to him for his final hours, but Osmond selfishly opposes this plan. Meanwhile, Isabel learns from her sister-in-law that Pansy is actually the daughter of Madame Merle, who had had an adulterous relationship with Osmond for several years.

Isabel pays a final visit to Pansy, who desperately begs her to return someday, which Isabel reluctantly promises to do. She then leaves, without telling her spiteful husband, to comfort the dying Ralph in England, where she remains until his death.

Goodwood encounters her at Ralph's estate, and begs her to leave Osmond and come away with him. He passionately embraces and kisses her, but Isabel flees. Goodwood seeks her out the next day but is told she has set off again for Rome.

The ending is ambiguous, and the reader is left to imagine whether Isabel returned to Osmond to suffer out her marriage in noble tragedy (perhaps for Pansy's sake), or she is going to rescue Pansy and leave Osmond.

Major themes

James's first idea for The Portrait of a Lady was simple: a young American woman confronting her destiny, whatever it might be. Only then did he begin to form a plot to bring out the character of his central figure. This was the uncompromising story of the free-spirited Isabel losing her freedom—despite (or because of) suddenly coming into a great deal of money—and getting "ground in the very mill of the conventional".[3] It is a rather existentialist novel, as Isabel is very committed to living with the consequences of her choice with both integrity and a sort of stubbornness.

Literary significance and criticism

The Portrait of a Lady has received critical acclaim since its first publication in The Atlantic Monthly, and it remains the most popular of James's longer fictions. Contemporary critics recognise that James had pushed the analysis of human consciousness and motivation to new levels, particularly in such passages as the famous Chapter 42, where Isabel meditates deep into the night about her marriage and the trap she seems to have fallen into. James made an in-depth account of Isabel's deepest terrors in his preface to the 1908 New York Edition of the novel.[4]

More recent criticism has been levied by feminists. In particular, Isabel's final return to Osmond has fascinated critics, who have debated whether James sufficiently justifies this seemingly paradoxical rejection of freedom. One interpretation is: Isabel both feels as honour-bound to the promise she has made to stepdaughter Pansy as she does to her marriage to Osmond, and she believes that the scene her "unacceptable" trip to England will create with Osmond will leave her in a more justifiable position to abandon her dreadful marriage.

The extensive revisions James made for the 1908 New York Edition have generally been accepted as improvements, unlike the changes he made to other texts, such as The American or Roderick Hudson. The revision of the final scene between Isabel and Goodwood has been especially applauded. As Edward Wagenknecht noted, James "makes it as clear as any modern novelist could make it by using all the four-letter words in the dictionary that [Isabel] has been roused as never before in her life, roused in the true sense perhaps for the first time in her life." James's verbal magic allowed him to both obey and evade the restrictive conventions of his day for the treatment of sexuality in literature.

Critic Alfred Habegger has written that the main character of Portrait was inspired by Christie Archer, the protagonist from Anne Moncure Crane's novel, Reginald Archer (1871). Crane (1838–1872) may have influenced James, who Habegger considers was interested in Crane's female characters.

In the preface to the 1908 New York Edition of the novel, James referred to several of George Eliot's female protagonists as possible influences on the Portrait. Habegger questions this and quotes others as doing the same.[5]

In another critical article, "Rewriting Misogyny: The Portrait of a Lady and the Popular Fiction Debate", Paul M. Hadella also mentions the similarities with Crane.[6]

Adaptations for stage and screen

In 1884, when the actor Lawrence Barrett wanted James to turn the novel into a play, James replied that he did not think it could be done.[7] In his opinion, given in the preface to the New York Edition, the best scene in the book consists of Isabel sitting motionless in a chair.[8]

The story was adapted as a Broadway play by William Archibald, which opened in December 1954, with Barbara O'Neil in the role of Madame Serena Merle.[9]

In 1968 the BBC produced a television miniseries of The Portrait of a Lady, starring Suzanne Neve as Isabel and Richard Chamberlain as Ralph Touchett.

The Portrait of a Lady was adapted in 1996 by New Zealand director Jane Campion, into a film starring Nicole Kidman as Isabel, John Malkovich as Osmond, and Barbara Hershey as Madame Merle.

It was also adapted in Urdu language in 1970s by a Pakistani television drama Parchaiyan. It was translated in Urdu language by Haseena Moin and the central characters were played by Rahat Kazmi, Sahira Kazmi,Talat Hussain and Shakeel.


  • James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. Oxford: World's Classics, 1981 (ed. Nicola Bradbury), ISBN 978-0192815149
  • James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Further reading


  1. James, Henry (2009). Preface. The Portrait of a Lady. I. Serenity Publishers. p. 12. ISBN 978-1604506136.
  2. Bloom, Harold, ed. (2002). Henry James. Chelsea House Publishers. p. 13. ISBN 978-1438116013.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  3. James, Henry (1961). The Portrait of a Lady'. Dell Publishing Co., Inc. p. 530.
  4. James, Henry (1908). "Preface". The Portrait of a Lady. New York.
  5. Habegger, Alfred (2004). Henry James and the 'Woman Business'. Cambridge University Press.
  6. Hadella, Paul M. (1994). "Rewriting Misogyny: The Portrait of a Lady and the Popular Fiction Debate". American Literary Realism, 1870–1910. University of Illinois Press.
  7. James, Henry; Edel, Leon (ed.) (1980). Letters, Volume III: 1883–1895, pp. 46–47. Belknap Press.
  8. James, Henry (2009). Preface, p. 19.
  9. Portrait of a Lady at IDBD. Retrieved 19 August 2015


  • The Great Tradition by F. R. Leavis (London: Chatto and Windus 1948)
  • The Novels of Henry James by Oscar Cargill (New York: Macmillan Co. 1961)
  • The Novels of Henry James by Edward Wagenknecht (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. 1983) ISBN 0-8044-2959-6
  • Modern Critical Views: Henry James edited by Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers 1987) ISBN 0-87754-696-7
  • The Portrait of a Lady: Maiden, Woman and Heroine by Lyall Powers (Boston: Twayne Publishers 1991) ISBN 0-8057-8066-1
  • Meaning in Henry James by Millicent Bell (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1991) ISBN 0-674-55763-8
  • A Companion to Henry James Studies edited by Daniel Fogel (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press 1993) ISBN 0-313-25792-2
  • Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Ruth Yeazell (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall 1994) ISBN 0-13-380973-0
  • The Cambridge Companion to Henry James edited by Jonathan Freedman (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press 1998) ISBN 0-521-49924-0
  • Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece by Michael Gorra (Norton 2012) ISBN 0-8714-0408-7
  • Funston, Judith E. "Crane, Anne Moncure." American National Biography Online, Feb 2000
  • Bamberg, Robert (2003). The Portrait of a Lady: An Authoritative Text, Henry James and the Novel, Reviews and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-96646-1.
  • James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Lamm, Kimberly. "A Future for Isabel Archer: Jamesian Feminism, Leo Bersani, and Aesthetic Subjectivity". The Henry James Review. Project Muse. Volume 32, 2011. 4 February 2013.
  • Jöttkandt, Sigi. "Portrait of an Act: Aesthetics and Ethics in The Portrait of a Lady". The Henry James Review. Volume 25.1, 2004.67–86. 4 February 2013.
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