The Portrait of a Lady – An Analysis of Identity in the Henry James Novel

Jack Prot

Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady is a nineteenth-century novel with an intriguing heroine, Isabel Archer. The book raises the issue of identity, and its construction and style inevitably effects how these identities are realised. The following analysis looks closely at this issue, assessing the text in relation to genre, concentrating specifically on the presence of certain Gothic conventions within the narrative.

The theme of confinement is a prominent one within The Portrait of a Lady, as Isabel Archer is ostensibly incarcerated by Gilbert Osmond. The novel effectively reworks traditional Gothic conventions, such as those inaugurated within the fiction of Ann Radcliffe and others, in its depiction of confinement and Isabel’s jailer.

When assessing the issue of female identity, it is beneficial to consider the author’s own intentions for their work. James was already a greatly respected critic before he turned to novel writing who had grand intentions for the novel as an art form. Such intentions are manifest in The Portrait of a Lady through what he called the ‘international light’, where characters of a certain nationality interact with those of other nations, an advantage bestowed upon James by his own expatriate status as an American living in England, and something that allowed him to explore issues of cultural and individual identity.

The Portrait of a Lady establishes characterization as its central focus. James is far more interested in creating a subtle atmosphere of implication that prompts his readers into contemplating the complexity of one woman’s circumstances. His brother, the philosopher William James, once commented on how Henry always defied the convention of telling a story. The Portrait of a Lady is written in the third-person, a narrative choice which inevitably has an effect on the issue of identity.

It is arguable that The Portrait of a Lady has a ‘centre of consciousness’ narrative, with other characters and broader issues being organized around the heroine. As the novel progresses, much of its drama and action actually takes place in Isabel’s mind as opposed to incidents being acted out externally. There is also a noticeable absence of overt narrative comment, such as that which Eliot employs to accompany the portrayal of her characters’ thoughts in Middlemarch, a novel whose heroine, Dorothea Brooke, James cites as an influence on his formation of Isabel Archer. Techniques such as internal monologue, free indirect discourse and focalization are frequently employed to achieve a variety of narrative effects. One of these being to portray events from the viewpoint of the characters themselves, and creating the impression of the author’s opinions having been effaced in order to direct the reader’s attention to the inner worlds of their characters. James wasn’t overly interested in depicting extreme or sensational events, as these distracted from his study of individual consciousness, striving instead for ‘economy’ in fiction. Such authorial intentions inevitably exert an influence over the nature of his heroine’s identity, and consequently Isabel is perceptive, introspective, and has a recognizable capacity for receiving impressions.

Our understanding of female identity in this narrative is also enhanced through an assessment of genre. The Portrait of a Lady belongs to James’s highly particular brand of realist fiction. In James’s novel, as in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, tradition Gothic trappings are reworked in the realm of the psychological.

Much of the tension in The Portrait of a Lady is apparent in Isabel’s own reactions to seemingly ordinary events. James’s prose style is suggestive rather than direct, his sentences frequently abounding with interruptions and deferrals. One particular point in the novel in which the author himself identifies as being exceptionally important, in respect of his heroine’s consciousness becoming the major site of drama and action, is the scene where Isabel first encounters Madame Merle. A sinister atmosphere isn’t invoked using obvious sensation strategies, but instead through subtle details such as Madame Merle being seated with her “ample and well-dressed” (XVIII, p.193) back to Isabel at the piano “furthest removed from the door” (XVIII, p.192) in Gardencourt’s drawing room – “an apartment of great distances” (XVIII, p.192). The reader is informed that Madame Merle plays the instrument “remarkably well”, with “skill”, “feeling”, and “a discretion of her own” (XVIII, p.193); her considerable musical dexterity is suggestive of her special powers in other areas, as she is later revealed to be dissembling and manipulative. After her introduction, Madame Merle continues to play while Isabel sits and listens, meanwhile James increases the ominous atmosphere with the following: “the shadows deepened in the room” (XVIII, p.194), describing the “autumn twilight” as gathering in, his heroine noticing the rain, “which had now begun in earnest” (XVIII, p.194).

Isabel’s identity is defined in part by other characters in the novel, particularly Gilbert Osmond. To a certain extent, Osmond’s character is a more complex and refined eighteenth century Gothic villain. He poses a major threat not just to the heroine’s freedom, but to her identity as well. Isabel is ‘commodified’ as a beautiful piece of art over which Osmond, as he has already achieved with his daughter Pansy, expects to exert complete control, depriving Isabel of her own identity by making her mind an extension of his. Osmond’s grand palazzo functions effectively as a place of confinement for Isabel.

In choosing to finally return to Osmond however, Isabel assumes the stature of a tragic heroine, yet she asserts her own autonomy, not in innocence but in full knowledge of the world, the major interest of the novel having become moral rather than romantic.

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