Study Guide

The Portrait of a Lady Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Henry James

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory


The living spaces we encounter in Portrait shine a significant light upon their inhabitants. Certain characters and relationships are defined by the buildings that house them; for example, Mr. Touchett’s love of Gardencourt symbolizes his peaceful escape from the world, while Lockleigh’s moated splendors represent Lord Warburton’s simultaneous pride and shame in his noble heritage. Osmond’s original hilltop home is, like the man himself, removed from society, dark, beautifully cultivated, and fascinatingly menacing, while the castle in Rome he shares with Isabel is fortress-like and forbidding, like his attitude towards their relationship.

Gardens, flowers, landscapes

Any mention of landscapes, parks, gardens, and nature in general should be regarded carefully here – James uses these images to suggest the ways in which people, like land, can be cultivated and shaped. Characters are often associated with one kind of landscape or another – while Isabel initially cannot be contained by the genteel, civilized lawn of Gardencourt, or by the moat that surrounds Lockleigh, she is eventually tamed and cut down in a walled garden by Osmond. Osmond is the ultimate gardener – Pansy, after all, is so cultivated and removed from nature that Mrs. Touchett thinks of her as "uncanny"(26.1). Appropriately her suitor, Edward Rosier, is similarly a kind of sheltered, hothouse flower.

Art, objects

We encounter many collectors of beautiful objects in this novel – Ralph, Osmond, and Rosier in particular – and their attitudes towards the artifacts that they collect extends into their human relationships. Women are often seen as things of beauty that these men long to possess, and Isabel, Pansy, and Madame Merle are all represented as works of art at various points in time. Osmond is the master collector, and his view of both his daughter and his wife is limited to a relationship between possessor and possession – a view that grates against Isabel’s beliefs.

Isabel as a ship

Ralph makes use of this image twice. First, he convinces his father to "put a little wind in her sails" (18.25) by bequeathing her a fortune. Later, he claims that Isabel is on an expedition to explore life, and will "be steaming away again" (26.2) once she’s done observing Osmond. This metaphor expresses Ralph’s admiration for his cousin’s sense of adventure and unbounded possibility.