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Teaching Guide

Teaching The Portrait of a Lady

Literature is art.

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The Portrait of a Lady can sometimes feel like it was painted by Bob Ross: all description, no action. But we have the tools you need to convert this portrait into something dynamic with just a few flourishes of your teaching brush.

In this guide you will find

  • an activity casting Isabel Archer on The Bachelorette (Dating Naked is going too far).
  • essay topics ranging from English customs to money-money-money.
  • historical and literary resources, like info on the Women's Movement and connections to Kate Chopin and James Joyce.

With the resources in our teaching guide, you can present your students with a thumbnail of a lady that they'll want to click to enlarge.

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Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes for every chapter, act, or part of the text.
  • Resources to help make the book feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop's teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the text and how you can overcome the hurdles.

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Instructions for You

Objective: Henry James wrote some great female characters, but we really only get to see things from Isabel's perspective. Aren't you wondering what's going on in the minds and homes of some of these other women? We bet your students are. Especially considering how restrictive Victorian society can be for women (um, corsets anyone?).

In this lesson, students will write a short narrative from the perspective of one of the other female characters in The Portrait of a Lady. By stepping into the mind of one of the other women in the book, students will further explore the theme of gender and womanhood.

This activity should take one to two class periods.

Materials Needed:

  • Text of The Portrait of a Lady

Step 1: Open the lesson with a general discussion about the character of Isabel Archer. How does Isabel's character development demonstrate what it was like to be a woman during the time of the novel? What lessons can we learn about gender from Isabel's story?

Step 2: Ask students to choose another important female character from the novel that they would like to explore: Madame Merle, Henrietta Stackpole, Mrs. Touchett, Countess Gemini, or Pansy Osmond. Their first task is to get inside that woman's head and find out what she feels, because Isabel isn't the only woman who deserves her own "portrait." Students should start getting to know their leading ladies with the following questions:

  • What is this character's opinion of Isabel?
  • What relationships does this character have with men?
  • How does this character view her independence—or lack thereof?
  • What motivates or drives this character?
  • How is this character different from Isabel?

You can also point them to Shmoop's character guides for more help.

Step 3: Next, students will find a scene that can be rewritten from their character's perspective. (They should probably pick a chapter where the story is heavily narrated from Isabel's point of view; otherwise, James has done half of the work for them—cheating!) Another option is to write a journal-style reflection on the ending from their character's point of view because everyone's going to have an opinion on Isabel returning to Rome. They should consider these questions as they write:

  • How might this character view or perceive the situation differently than Isabel?
  • What does this character think about the other people in the scene?
  • What does this character think about the events unfolding in this scene?
  • How does the scene impact this character?
  • What clues from the text help you to guess what your character is thinking and feeling?

Step 4: After they're finished writing, have the students share their work with the class. Try to pick at least one representative for each character, and then lead a final discussion with these questions as a guide:

  • How is your chosen character limited in her choices because of her gender?
  • How is your character able—or unable—to protest against the limited choices she has in this world?
  • How do these gender limitations affect your character internally?
  • When considering all of these characters together, what statement do you think James is making about the role of women in society?

Instructions for Your Students

Henry James wrote some great female characters, but we really only get to see things from Isabel's perspective. Aren't you wondering what's going on in the minds and homes of some of these other women? How do they feel about the restrictive Victorian society in which they live? Are any of them secretly wishing to burn their corsets, or are they satisfied with their roles in society?

In this lesson, we'll find out what some of these women think by writing a short narrative from the perspective of one of the other female characters in The Portrait of a Lady. Hold onto your hats, boys; it's time to dig into this theme of gender and womanhood.

Step 1: Let's start things off with a little chat about Isabel. What lessons can you learn about womanhood and gender from her character? How does her development give us a look into women's lives back in the nineteenth century?

Step 2: Now you're going to pick another female character from The Portrait of a Lady to write about. Your choices include the villainous (but also kinda pitiable) Madame Merle, the independent Henrietta Stackpole, the touchy Mrs. Touchett, the (eventually) honest Countess Gemini, and the wallflower Pansy Osmond.

Each one of them approaches her role in society in a different way; some of them protest and do their own thing, while others do whatever the men in their lives tell them to do (how do they stand it?).

Your first task is to get inside that woman's head and find out what she feels. Remember, we might think that being bossed around and wearing frilly dresses would be awful, but your character might be perfectly content. You'll need to examine the text closely for clues about her interior life. Start getting to know your leading ladies with the following questions:

  • What is this character's opinion of Isabel?
  • What relationships does this character have with men?
  • How does this character view her independence—or lack thereof?
  • What motivates or drives this character?
  • How is this character different from Isabel?

You can also check out Shmoop's character guides for more help.

Step 3: Time to get creative! You have two choices: rewrite a scene from the perspective of your chosen character, or write a journal-style reflection on the ending of the novel from your character's point of view. (Yes, the ending is all about Isabel, but everyone and her mother has an opinion about Isabel's choice, so it will be easy for you to imagine your character's opinion on the matter.) Try to write in James's style as best as you can, but that's not the main point of the assignment. The main point is to understand and express the character, to give a portrait of another lady.

Here are some things to think about as you write:

  • How might this character view or perceive the situation differently than Isabel?
  • What does this character think about the other people in the scene?
  • What does this character think about the events unfolding in this scene?
  • How does the scene impact this character?
  • What clues from the text help you to guess what your character is thinking and feeling?

Step 4: Penny for your thoughts, um, your character's thoughts? Let's hear what you came up with when you dove into the minds of these women:

  • How is your chosen character limited in her choices because of her gender?
  • How is your character able—or unable—to protest against the limited choices she has in this world?
  • How do these gender limitations affect your character internally?
  • When considering all of these characters together, what statement do you think James is making about the role of women in society?

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