A Psychological Analysis of Henry James The Portrait of A Lady

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Although she makes a bad marriage, Isabel is not a tragic character. Once she realizes that she made a mistake in marrying Gilbert, she resolves to bring her strength of character to bear upon the circumstances that she has created by her own free choice. By refusing to leave her marriage, Isabel refuses to adopt the corrupt ways of her European circle.

Instead, Isabel intends to graciously and courageously accept the consequences of her unwise decision and to make the best life she can. An old acquaintance of Ralph, Mr.


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Bantling meets Henrietta when she is in London with Ralph and Isabel. He becomes Henrietta's companion and guide as she travels around Europe as a journalist. Countess Gemini is Gilbert Osmond's sister. She is well aware of Gilbert's true character and thus has no affection for him, but the two have a familial relationship in spite of this.

The Countess catches on quickly to Madame Merle's scheme to get Isabel to marry Gilbert and voices her objection to it, but she doesn't actually do anything to prevent it. Four years after the marriage, at a time when Isabel is distraught over Gilbert's controlling nature, the Countess, out of sympathy, finally tells Isabel the truth about Gilbert's past. Caspar is Isabel's American suitor.

Having fallen in love with Isabel in the United States, he follows her to England to try to get her to agree to marry him. Isabel sees his persistence as aggression and is only irritated by it. However, the novel's one moment of passion takes place between Caspar and Isabel, when Caspar goes to see Isabel at Gardencourt one last time after Ralph's death.

The couple's passionate kiss can be seen as Isabel's belated appreciation of the honesty and simplicity of character that Caspar personifies. Madame Merle is a friend of Mrs.

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Isabel first meets her when both women are guests at Mrs. Touchett's home in England just before Mr. Touchett's death. Madame Merle is older than Isabel and very accomplished socially. She is charming and congenial and, as becomes clear only later, adept at manipulating people and events to serve her interests. Isabel is dazzled by Madame Merle's apparent refinement. Gilbert Osmond was born in the United States but has lived virtually his entire life in Europe. He has the same qualities as Madame Merle, and Isabel is attracted to both of them for the same reason.

Gilbert is an art collector, and he has an air of charm, sophistication, and refinement that greatly impresses Isabel. While all of her friends and relatives see Gilbert for the self-centered dilettante he is, Isabel is completely taken in and falls in love with him.

The Portrait of a Lady Literary Elements

More than any other character, Gilbert is not what he appears to be. Although he has expensive tastes, he does not have money. Although he is charming and seductive, he does not really care about Isabel. And although he pretends that his daughter is the child of his deceased first wife, she is actually the product of an affair with Madame Merle. Pansy is Gilbert's daughter, and she is fifteen years old when Isabel meets Gilbert. Gilbert has always said that Pansy is the child of his first wife, who died giving birth to her, and Pansy was brought up in a convent.

The nuns have reared her to be a completely obedient child, which pleases Gilbert. Readers, along with Isabel, learn the truth about Pansy years after Isabel's marriage to Gilbert. Pansy is actually the product of a long affair between Madame Merle and Gilbert, whose first wife did die, but not in childbirth. Pansy does not know that Madame Merle is her mother but has an obvious dislike for the woman. Pansy likes Isabel and is very happy when she learns that Isabel is going to marry her father. Isabel's love for Pansy may be one reason why she returns to Gilbert at the end of the novel.

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Henrietta is an American journalist and a friend of Isabel. She is the quintessential "ugly American": loud, brassy, and boorish. Although Isabel sees Henrietta's faults, she is loyal to her friend, as Henrietta is to her. And, although Henrietta does not have Isabel's refinement, she is a better judge of people, and she warns Isabel not to marry Gilbert.

Touchett is Isabel's wealthy uncle. Like most of the novel's characters, he was born in the United States, but at the time of the story, he has lived for many years in England. He comes to care deeply for Isabel and, when he hesitates to leave her half his fortune, it is only because he is afraid that the money will bring her harm rather than good. Touchett dies early in the novel after letting Ralph persuade him to leave Isabel a fortune.

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Isabel's aunt, Mrs. Touchett, goes to New York after the death of her brother, from whom she was estranged, and decides to bring Isabel back to Europe with her. Her independence is clear from the fact that she long ago set up her own home in Florence while her husband remained in England, since the two did not enjoy the same kind of life.

The two crafted an amicable marriage out of visits to each other's homes. Like Isabel, Mrs. Touchett is impressed with Madame Merle's mastery of the social graces and fails to see that she is corrupt until it is too late to save Isabel from her scheme. Touchett does realize the truth before Isabel does, however. Ralph is Isabel's cousin.

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He becomes her admirer, friend, and confidant. Like Isabel, he is intelligent and good-hearted. Unlike her, though, he is physically frail. He is also much less naive than his cousin. He understands and condemns the conniving of Madame Merle and others like her. Because Ralph cares for Isabel and sees her potential to blossom into a sophisticated woman, he wants to do what he can to give her an advantage in life. Ralph is ill and knows that he will not live long, and therefore he persuades his dying father to leave half his estate to Isabel.

Throughout the novel, until his death at the end of the story, Ralph remains Isabel's supporter, although Isabel's insistence on marrying Gilbert causes tension and even a brief rupture in their relationship. It is significant that when Ralph is near death and asks Isabel to travel to England to see him, she does so even over her husband's objections. Isabel also admits to Ralph that she made a terrible mistake when she married Gilbert. These two actions show the closeness and loyalty that Isabel feels toward Ralph. For his part, Ralph dies feeling that, while he hoped to benefit Isabel by securing a fortune for her, he actually brought about her ruin.

Lord Warburton is a friend of the Touchetts who falls in love with Isabel almost as soon as he meets her. He proposes to Isabel, and when she rejects him, he asks for an explanation but then accepts her decision graciously. Since Warburton is not only extremely wealthy but also considerate and kind, Isabel's rejection of him stuns everyone. Isabel's choice of Gilbert over Warburton is a clear sign of her lack of judgment. Like Caspar Goodwood, Warburton comes to see Isabel at Gardencourt at the end of the novel and, like Goodwood, he is rejected one final time.

The contrast between the American character and the European character is a theme that appears throughout James's work. This is not surprising, since it is a contrast he observed throughout his life as an American who spent most of his adulthood in Europe. According to James, Americans tend to be naive, energetic, practical, sincere, direct, and spontaneous, and they value the individual above society. Conversely, Europeans are sophisticated, lethargic, formal, insincere, obtuse, and scheming, and they value society above the individual.

This theme is especially interesting in The Portrait of a Lady because most of its characters are Americans who have been living in Europe for varying periods of time.

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In general, the longer an American-born character has been in Europe, the more European traits he or she has. Gilbert has lived nearly his whole life on the Continent and is completely European in character. James uses him to personify the worst manifestations of European traits. At the other end of the spectrum is Isabel, who is just arriving in Europe as the novel opens.

The things that make her distinctively American, such as her energy and independent attitude, are fresh and interesting to the European characters. They are also, however, the things that lead to her downfall. By refusing to take the counsel of those who care about her, Isabel falls prey to the more sophisticated Europeans who manipulate her for their own purposes.

James does make a moral judgment about which culture produces better people; he clearly portrays the Americans as having more integrity. But he also shows that, taken as individuals, most Americans and Europeans alike have both good and bad qualities. While Isabel is almost wholly admirable and Gilbert is almost wholly despicable, the other characters are drawn in shades of gray. Henrietta is an example of an American whom James portrays less positively. Her American qualities are exaggerated so that her directness is actually rudeness. Her lack of regard for society and convention is so extreme that she offends as routinely as Isabel enchants.

Lord Warburton, on the other hand, exemplifies European qualities in their most positive form. He is sophisticated and conventional, but he is also courteous, sensitive, and gracious even in defeat. Ralph is also a positive European character, a physically weak man who is nevertheless morally strong. Isabel's social and emotional development is thrown into high relief by James's contrast of American and European natures. Yet Isabel's experiences and the wisdom she gains from them are certainly not unique to American women coming of age in European society.

It is almost a rule that young women make poor romantic choices. In fact, they often make exactly the mistake that Isabel makes: they choose a man who is charming and seductive, yet self-centered, over one who is less worldly but more substantial and caring. This oft-repeated error of youth has been the subject of many works of literature. Perhaps the best-known is Jane Austen 's Sense and Sensibility , which contrasts the naive Marianne and her wiser sister, Elinor.