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The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady

by Henry James

Analysis: Tone

Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?

Critical, yet sympathetic

The narrator’s attitude manages to be both distanced and interested in Isabel and her predicament. We get the feeling that the mysterious narrative voice really is sympathetic towards our heroine, but still maintains a critical and objective stance. The story unfolds in a direct and straightforward manner – there’s nothing tricky or misleading going on here – and reveals each character with a precision that’s almost scientific. Throughout the novel, there’s a profound sense of admiration and deep sympathy for Isabel, even though the narrator never comes right out and wails, "Oh, my! Isabel is so admirable, yet unfortunate!" At the same time, the novel asks us to be critical of this admirable heroine’s actions and choices, and not simply to be swept up in our like or dislike of the characters.

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