The Portrait of a Lady
by Henry James
Analysis: What’s Up With the Ending?
Whew – if this isn’t intense, we don’t know what is. Isabel, who was never exactly the most predictable heroine to begin with, throws us one last curveball. After an electrifying, truly rousing kiss, delivered by the one and only Caspar Goodwood – representing her last chance for escape from her dreadful marriage to Osmond, and a final bid for happiness – Isabel makes the conscious choice to return to Rome and to Osmond. This is one of those "Why, for the love of God, why?" moments that haunts literature.
However, the grimly beautiful thing about this ending is that it simply couldn’t go any other way. Part of our love and respect for Isabel is her sense of personal responsibility – it’s foolishly noble, ridiculously stubborn, and just plain stupid, perhaps, but it also shows that she sticks to her guns. She recognizes the fact that only she is truly to blame for the mistakes she has made, and that she has to live up to them. Her responsibilities to herself and to Pansy oblige her to return to the life she has chosen, even if it means that she might never attain true personal happiness.
James also leaves Isabel’s life fascinatingly open-ended; we don’t know if her return to Osmond is simply the end of the story, or if she ultimately carves out her own kind of happiness. We hope that the latter is true – but we’ll never know.