Study Guide

The Portrait of a Lady Genre

By Henry James


Coming-of-Age, Realism

We don’t know about you, but, when we think "Coming-of-Age," Henry James isn’t exactly the first thing that springs to mind – a few other things usually pop up first, like, say, The Catcher in the Rye, or possibly The Breakfast Club. However, Portrait of a Lady is definitely also one of the classics of the genre; Isabel’s transformation from a naïve American import to a world-weary international woman of mystery is all about the harsh difference between idealistic youth and cynical, experienced age.

With regards to James’s preferred modus operandi, Portrait is a famous example of the Realist novel (for others, see Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, or any number of other super-famous novels of the nineteenth century). Basically, this means that the events of the novel could all happen quite conceivably in the real world that we live in – or rather, the one that James lived in – and the author shows life and humanity as they really are. By focusing on an individual life and all the people that touch it, James manages to show us a vast spectrum of human emotion.