The Portrait of a Lady
by Henry James
Analysis: Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis
Christopher Booker is a scholar who wrote that every story falls into one of seven basic plot structures: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. Shmoop explores which of these structures fits this story like Cinderella’s slipper.
Plot Type : Rags to Riches
Initial wretchedness at home and the ‘Call’
Mrs. Touchett finds Isabel alone in her family home in Albany.
While Isabel is certainly far from poor and wretched, she is certainly un-wealthy and unfulfilled. She has a sense of things yet to come, and, when Mrs. Touchett discovers her in the quiet, empty Albany house, she knows that her adventures are about to begin.
Out into the world, initial success
Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood propose to Isabel; she inherits a fortune from Mr. Touchett.
Things look really good for Isabel: it seems like every person she meets goes crazy for her, even though she has yet to go crazy for anyone herself. Mr. Touchett’s unexpected bequest suggests that she will be able to live out her dreams as independently as she wishes. She’s overwhelmed, but then excited by this prospect.
The central crisis
Pushed slyly by Madame Merle, Isabel falls in love with Osmond and agrees to marry him.
Isabel’s pride in her independence and freedom of choice allows her to make a disastrous decision, but not question it – until it’s far too late. After two years of marriage, in which their relationship goes rapidly from exciting to abysmal, Isabel realizes that Osmond has taken her independence, her most prized possession, away from her. She also reaches the terrible realization that her choices and actions weren’t actually her own – rather, they were cunningly engineered by Madame Merle and Osmond.
Independence and the final ordeal
Isabel visits Ralph against Osmond’s wishes.
Isabel takes a stand against her husband and goes to Gardencourt to be with Ralph during his last days. Before she leaves, she visits Pansy, and promises to go back for her. We wonder, as she does, if she will actually follow through. On the way to Gardencourt, the further she gets from Osmond, parts of the old Isabel begin to return. Ralph, on his deathbed, reminds her that life and love still await her, if she will only remember to seek them out. We hope she does.
Final union, completion, and fulfillment
Isabel leaves England and returns to Rome.
This is where Henry James’s story breaks from the formula: Isabel does not end up with her maybe-maybe-not soul mate, Caspar Goodwood – she makes the conscious decision to be responsible for the choices she’s made, and return to Osmond. Although this is not, by any means, a kind of happy-fairytale-fulfillment, it is a kind of grim completion of Isabel’s story: She refuses to back down from her choices and commitments (although they make her truly miserable), and, in so doing, remains the strong, proud character we know.