Study Guide

The Portrait of a Lady Possession

By Henry James


How much can one person truly possess another? If you ask Gilbert Osmond, the domineering villain of Portrait of a Lady, he’d probably tell you that all relationships are defined as possessor and possessed. He certainly takes this attitude towards the three women in his life, his wife, his lover, and his innocent daughter. Thankfully, this isn’t the only view of possession we see in this novel; other characters demonstrate other modes of relating to each other. However, the question of possession, both in human relationships and in how we relate to the world around us, remains a pressing one.

Questions About Possession

  1. Does love necessarily entail possession?
  2. Is it possible for possession to be a positive thing?
  3. To what degree can people possess other human beings? Think about Pansy and Osmond.

Chew on This

Love always requires a degree of possession, either mutual or one-sided.

Isabel initially takes a certain pride in being Osmond’s prize possession, as Pansy consistently does.