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The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady

by Henry James

Lies and Deceit Theme

Honesty is kind of a problem in this book. Some people are just too honest, while others aren’t honest enough. There’s a certain innate untruthfulness about the whole society that James reveals to us; polite social interaction usually involves hiding one’s feelings, to some degree, and masking true emotion behind glib repartee. However, as we get deeper into the novel, we see that deceit of a much more malevolent kind is also at work here… and it’s scary. Just as our protagonist feels betrayed by people whom she thought she knew, so, too, we are shocked and horrified when things turn out to be far worse than they seem.

Questions About Lies and Deceit

  1. Who, if anyone, is Madame Merle loyal to? Who or what is Osmond loyal to?
  2. Is Isabel herself also a deceitful character?
  3. Henrietta Stackpole is frequently rather deceitful, and constantly communicates with Caspar against Isabel’s wishes – however, she is never accused of wickedness. What makes her deception acceptable?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

All of the major characters of The Portrait of a Lady are, at times, deceivers.

To Isabel, the worst kind of deceit is lying to oneself.

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