The Portrait of a Lady
by Henry James
Isabel is – wow. She’s – huh? Isabel is – well, tough. She is a lot of contradictions. She’s both easy to describe and hard to figure out; relatable and remote; profoundly human and inhuman. If you identify with her the way that some of us Shmoopsters do, it’s possible that she’s a little bit similar to how you see yourself, and a little of how you want to be seen. Anyway, Isabel is really something else… and it’s precisely this indefinable definition that makes her so very real.
If you’re scratching your head and saying, "You lost me there, Shmoop," we understand. That last sentence doesn’t seem like a sentence at all. What we meant was, trying to sum up Isabel Archer in a nice little package is like attempting to sum up your best friend, or your sibling, or you, for that matter – and futilely trying to cram everything you know about said person, everything you’ve experienced together, everything that person has ever said or done, into a concise definition.
By the end of the novel, she’s just that real to us. We’ve been through the wringer with her, and we’ve seen her at her best and worst. Trying to wrap all that up in prose may not seem that hard, but go ahead – try it. Impossible, you say? Ha! Nothing is impossible when you’re Henry James. Incidentally, if this Herculean task doesn’t seem that tough to you, go ahead, keep writing – maybe you’re the next Henry James.
James’s masterful construction of Isabel’s infuriating, lovable, tough, fragile, glorious, pitiful, etc., etc. character forms the backbone of this novel; he actually wrote it not knowing his heroine’s destiny, and her story emerged from his idea of her character. The way we read the novel echoes this pattern; we get to know Isabel intimately over the course of several hundred pages before her proper story even begins to unfold.
So, what kinds of things do we learn about her in the first stage of the book, and what happens to her later? Well, we know some basics: Isabel is beautiful. Isabel is intelligent. Isabel is oh-so-aware of both of these things, as is most of the world. People respect her qualities, and are sometimes intimidated by her. At the beginning of the novel, she’s young (twenty-three) and quite naïve, and sees the world as her proverbial oyster. Most importantly, Isabel values her sense of personal independence more than anything else – she’s so proud of this fact that it sometimes clouds her vision. We worry that sometimes she acts dramatically independent just to prove that she can.
Things start to change after the death of Mr. Touchett. Isabel as a fledgling heiress is quite a different creature, at first. She feels paradoxically like wealth has both given her more freedom, and taken away the specific kind of independence she prized when she was a poor nobody. However, once she gets her bearings, she grows more comfortable with her newfound wealth; the changes that it causes in her are so slight that they are almost imperceptible at first.
Henrietta Stackpole warns her that the money may feed into her so-called dangerous tendencies, particularly her inclination to live in her own idealistic world, not in the down-and-dirty world the rest of us live in, and, unfortunately, Henrietta’s ominous prediction comes true. It is this overblown sense of self-confidence and idealism that allows Isabel to be ensnared by Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond.
She believes so wholly in her own independence that she cannot see when others are working to control her. She also creates an ideal image of Osmond that really doesn’t align with reality — which she refuses to relinquish, even when faced with the brutal truth (presented by Mrs. Touchett and Ralph).
However, once she’s caught in Osmond’s mind-trap – otherwise known as "marriage" – she realizes what has happened to her. Confronted with her own terrible mistakes and with the wickedness of others, Isabel is forced to reevaluate what it means to be an independent being; she decides that it comes down to being responsible for the choices one makes, whether they’re good or bad.
Of course, it’s this process that leads Isabel to make that problematic, dramatic final decision to return to Rome. And, it’s just that decision which makes Isabel a real person, rather than a mere literary character. The fact that she can do something that horrifies us so profoundly, yet maintain our sympathy, concern, and, to some degree, our comprehension, means that she transcends the realm of simply being a creation of Henry James’s mind. Isabel’s end shows us that she always has her own mind, and always makes her own choices.