The Portrait of a Lady
by Henry James
Tools of Characterization
Boy, this narrator certainly isn’t shy. We are told about all of our characters quite directly, from their clothes, to their thoughts, to the way they talk and are talked about. The narrator tells us exactly how he perceives the characters, which in turn influences how we perceive them. For example, we know that Isabel is something of a superior individual not only because she thinks so, but because the narrator also thinks so. We are told about all of the characters’ flaws and high points in a relatively frank, up-front way, and we see these statements realized through their actions.
Not only do we get detailed descriptions of the physical traits of these characters, we also are given specific metaphors for many of them. For example, Countess Gemini’s bird-like countenance and mannerisms demonstrate her flighty nature (24.2), while Henrietta Stackpole reminds Ralph of a fresh, crisp newspaper, and "from top to toe she had probably no misprint" (10.3). These physical cues tell us a great deal about the personalities of the characters we encounter, and help us know what we should expect from their behavior.
Henry James had quite a liking for interesting names (one of the characters in his 1904 novel The Golden Bowl is called Fanny Assingham – no joke). While none of the players in Portrait have names quite as ridiculous, many of them are memorably significant. Madame Merle, who is often described as serene, untouchable, and calm, is aptly named Serena, although this first name is only used once. Pansy and Rosier, the two most innocent, youthful characters, both have floral names. Countess Gemini, who ultimately betrays her brother by telling Isabel about his deceitful actions, carries her two-sided nature in her name (which means "twins"). Isabel Archer herself recalls the Roman goddess of chastity, Diana, who is typically pictured as a huntress with bow and arrow. Finally, Caspar Goodwood’s name suggests his personality quite clearly – he’s strong, virile, trustworthy, and so solid you could build a bridge out of him.
Occupation, you ask? What occupation? It’s true, many of these characters lead lives of intriguing leisure, which they support with their inherited incomes. Osmond, Madame Merle, Ralph, Mrs. Touchett, Edward Rosier, and Isabel herself are all notably without professions. Lord Warburton, whose hereditary wealth is vaster than anyone else’s, is only partially occupied with matters of government.
The most common occupation seen in the book is that of the art collector – Ralph, Osmond, Madame Merle, and Rosier are all collectors of beautiful objects, a hobby that reflects upon all of their characters. Each one values his or her possessions in different ways: Ralph cares for his collection of fine paintings, but it isn’t his be all and end all, while Rosier is passionately invested in his "bibelots." Osmond’s creepily proprietary and possessive nature extends to the women in his life, while Madame Merle’s possessions (and herself), while very fine and quite precious, are often threatened by cracks or flaws.
The characters that actually have jobs, Caspar Goodwood and Henrietta Stackpole, are notably both American. They represent the industry and hard-working ethics of American society, in opposition to the languid European life to which we see the expatriate characters succumb.
All of these characters exist in a world in which social class and nationality are of the utmost importance, but, interestingly, many of them can’t be defined exactly by the latter. While legitimately European characters like Lord Warburton can be pinned down by their social status, the majority of James’s other characters exist in a space that is ambiguous and indefinable – that of the American European. Ralph, Osmond, Isabel, Madame Merle, and even Countess Gemini (who bought her title through her marriage), are all in a class of their own, that of the well-to-do expatriate. They are concerned with matters of social status, but are simultaneously excluded from it and allowed to rise above it by merit of their nationality.
Speech and Dialogue
Conversation is carefully crafted and very significant in this novel. James’s characters are often revealed by their distinctive styles of conversation; Madame Merle, for example, is a smooth talker who’s always in control of every discussion (except, notably, her interactions with Osmond), while Caspar Goodwood only says what he means, and is often silent. Henrietta Stackpole’s up-front, open, and opinionated nature is reflected in her bold, often impertinent speech, while Ralph often masks his own vulnerability with his witty repartee.
Thoughts and Opinions
James gives us carefully placed views into the intimate thoughts and opinions of certain characters – but only when it’s absolutely necessary. We’re not deluged with the inner workings of everyone we meet (we never really hear what Pansy thinks), but, when we do find out what a character is thinking, it’s very significant. For example, our first real glimpse of Madame Merle’s interior is quite revealing: After the death of Mr. Touchett, we "hear" what she really thinks of her supposed friend, Mrs. Touchett (20.2-3), and get the feeling for the first time that she’s not what she appears to be. We also are allowed to see Isabel’s inner thoughts and feelings throughout the novel, which contribute to our understanding of her character.