Study Guide

The Portrait of a Lady Identity

By Henry James


Who am I? Who are you? Who’s that guy over there? Who are we all? These are some of the fundamental questions that plague us all daily. They also plague the characters of Portrait of a Lady, who, despite a distance of over a hundred years, are concerned with the same things we are. The novel is all about discovering what characters really want and need, deep down inside, and finding out whether or not they have the strength to reach out and take it. Even when characters think they know themselves, they’re always surprised by what they don’t know about other people.

Questions About Identity

  1. How much of identity is naturally ingrained in a person? How much can it be shaped by external forces?
  2. Do the characters in this novel create their own identities?
  3. Does Isabel ever have a clear and true image of her own identity?
  4. Does one’s real identity necessarily align with the image one presents to the world?

Chew on This

The majority of the characters in the novel carefully construct their own identities, but not all of them succeed in convincing the rest of the world.

It is impossible to hide one’s true identity forever.