Study Guide

The Portrait of a Lady Independence

By Henry James


It turns out that Cyndi Lauper’s claim that girls just wanna have fun is totally wrong. What girls – rather, women – just want in this novel is actually independence and the freedom to make their own choices. The many women that Henry James depicts in The Portrait of a Lady have hopes, dreams, and even schemes, but not all of them come true. The novel examines the various obstacles (men, social pressure…you know, the usual) that stand between these characters and true, unrestricted independence.

Questions About Independence

  1. What relationship does marriage have with independence in this novel?
  2. Is Isabel’s financial independence actually independence?
  3. Are any of Isabel’s actions simply motivated by her need to prove her personal liberty?
  4. Who is Isabel proving her independence to? Herself or the world?

Chew on This

Isabel’s decision to turn down both Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood springs directly from her rebellious need to prove her independence, both to the world at large, and to herself.

The greatest freedom is the opportunity to make mistakes.