Study Guide

The Portrait of a Lady Suffering

By Henry James


"Suffering" is an interesting concept. It can mean any number of different things to different people; in Portrait of a Lady, we see many of these different incarnations brought to life. We are presented with the suffering of unrequited love, of physical pain, of loss – and, worst of all, the suffering of the horrible realization that you’ve made a wrong decision (ah, yes… we’re all familiar with that one). James plays upon his readers’ understanding of all these different brands of suffering, and, in so doing, brings us even closer to the vibrant, oh-so-real characters he creates.

Questions About Suffering

  1. When Isabel and Ralph first meet, he half-seriously refers to the Gardencourt ghost, which one can only see after experiencing great suffering. What do you think he means by this comment?
  2. Early in the novel, Isabel suggests that people don’t need to suffer – do you think her opinion has changed by the end?
  3. Does love in fact have the power to overcome suffering?
  4. Is suffering worse when it is caused by one’s own actions? Consider both Madame Merle and Isabel.

Chew on This

Madame Merle’s suffering stems largely from her awareness of her own wickedness.

Isabel’s suffering makes her emerge a stronger woman.