Monday, January 28, 2013

The Portrait of A Lady – Final Review

You wanted to look at life for yourself—but you were not allowed; you were punished for your wish. You were ground in the very mill of the conventional.”

If the story of The Portrait of A Lady must be packed in few sentences, the above quote suits perfectly to express it. The Portrait of A Lady portrayed the rise and fall of Isabel Archer’s life. Isabel was an American young woman who had been confined in her father’s protection for years. She was a smart woman, thirst of knowledge and experience of the outer world, and her dream was to see other countries and to meet people from different cultures. When her father died, Isabel saw the first hint of her fortune; a woman who introduced herself as her aunt would like to take her to England.

Isabel stayed at her aunt’s house—the Touchetts’—with her uncle, old Mr. Touchett and her cousin Ralph Touchett. Ralph was a cheerful and spirited young man; who unfortunately suffered from pulmonary disease that made him pale and weak, and forced him to resign from his job and to stay idly at home. Ralph fell in love with Isabel from the first time, but kept it to himself, realizing he had no future because of his illness. At the same time, his friend—Lord Warburton—was attracted to Isabel; and a young American businessman called Caspar Goodwood completed the group of Isabel’s suitors. Isabel rejected both their approaches, as she was still fascinated to see the world before being bounded in a marriage.

Before old Mr. Touchett died, Ralph secretly persuaded his father to alter his will, and granted big half of his share to Isabel, because he wanted to fulfill Isabel’s dream. Isabel had suddenly become rich; and this attracted Mrs. Touchett’s friend called Madame Merle. Merle introduced Isabel to Gilbert Osmond—a gentlemen without money or merit but has great ambition to be admired by the society. Osmond’s unique personalities attracted Isabel; ignoring her friend’s advises, Isabel decided to marry Osmond after she returned from the around-the-world journey, and lived in Rome. This decision turned out to be a huge mistake—as Isabel later realized—because Osmond had married her only for her money, with Merle as his ‘partner in crime’. The free spirited Isabel must now live unhappily under her husband’s strict dominancy.

This is the first Henry James I have ever read, and I instantly remarked his genius writing. Not only telling a beautiful tale, James also analyzed psychological aspects of society through his heroine and the satellite characters. But I liked this book especially because of Isabel Archer herself. I found from her first appearance that Isabel was so similar to me. We both are free spirited; we love the freedom to do things ourselves and we like to make our own decision. I share the same thirst of knowledge with Isabel, I had even promised myself—when I was in college—that I won’t marry unless I had stepped my feet in France! 

Because of the similarity, I sympathized with Isabel along her journey of life, I understood her feelings and her decisions. For others, it might be stupid, stubborn or anything, but for us it’s what we must do. Although I’m luckier than Isabel that I was not obliged to accept proposal from many suitors (and thank God I did not have to deal with stubborn suitors like Isabel’s, LOL!), I can understand why Isabel had rejected both Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood. Both were good men, but they were often too pushy toward Isabel; they kept circling around her, asking again and again what she wanted; offering their wealth, gentle understanding, etc. In short they were eager to marry her. The subject here was always themselves, never Isabel. You’re wrong guys, Isabel is an independent woman, she likes to be active; the harder you force an idea to her, the more she will reject it. It’s just our characters!

So, how could Isabel chose Osmond then? It’s because he appeared humble in front of Isabel—false it was in fact.

“I’m absolutely in love with you…. I’ve too little to offer you. What I have—it’s enough for me; but it’s not for you. I’ve neither fortune, nor fame, nor extrinsic advantages of any kind. So, I offer nothing.”

That’s what he told her, and I guess, that—among other things—had intrigued Isabel to like Osmond. It turned out to be a wrong choice, well….who don’t make mistakes anyway? Isabel was so innocent at that time, that she wasn’t wise enough to see motives behind other’s perfectness.

If I could advise Isabel, I would advise her to choose Ralph. For me, Ralph’s love was the purest, for he loved Isabel from his helplessness; he understood her very well; he never forced her to do or say something; and best of all, he sacrificed his part of inheritance for her happiness, without even telling her. And I believe a woman should marry a man with whom she feels most comfortable with, as if she doesn’t have to hide anything from him, for he should understand anyway. And Isabel could find that credits only in Ralph (Isabel was afraid of Goodwood, and with Warburton, she often felt uneasy).

James did not offer a sentimental and emotional ending as Dickens; James’ ending could not be said beautiful, but still made us reflect and think a lot. The Portrait of A Lady is not a tale, it’s a portrait of real life. We made mistakes and struggle, sometimes we can get out of the sorrows and start a new brighter life; but most of all, we cannot run from our decision and what we can do is to stop crying about it, and to apply a new way of thinking to make the best of it. Isabel Archer had taught me to be brave and always hold my principles. People can control me physically, but no one can control my mind!

Four stars for The Portrait of A Lady. You can find my deeper analysis of this book in my stage reading inquiries post.


I would die if you could live. But I don’t wish you to live; I would die myself, not to lose you.”
Isabel Archer

You won’t lose me—you’ll keep me. Keep me in your heart; I shall be nearer to you than I’ve never been. Dear Isabel, life is better; for in life there’s love.”
Ralph Touchett

If you have been hated you’ve also been loved. Ah but, Isabel—adored!
Ralph Touchett


*I read 1999 Wordsworth Classics edition paperback*

*This book is counted as*

2nd book for Turn of The Century Salon

 3rd book for 2013 TBR Pile Challenge


  1. What a great review, Fanda! Thanks. :)

    1. Thanks Jean, I'm glad you like it, for it seems not many people liked The Portrait of A Lady...

  2. I've heard mixed reviews of this work by James. I wasn't fond of the adaptation and although I do plan to read the novel am unsure what I'll think of it. I do like what you've said of Isabel's independent character.

    1. I know, many people doesn't like this book. Isabel is probably rather far from an ideal heroine, because she had done a stupid mistake, but I still admire her independent way of thinking. I hope you'll like it, Katherine!

  3. That's a lovely review. I read this book many years ago, so I can't remember exactly what I thought of it. But I remember liking it a lot. I also loved Tess of d'Urbervilles, which I'd always thought was written by Henry James, but is apparently written by Thomas Hardy (I just looked it up now). :D Oh well. I always mix those two up. They have the same tone and atmosphere to their books. Very cynical/realistic endings rather than the more cheery endings of Dickens, like you say.

    1. Me too! I often confuse between Hardy's and James' books :P
      I quite like James, so now I'm excited to read any Hardy's. Tess of d'Urberville is in my list too, but I think I'll start with Far from A Madding Crowd.

  4. Nice review Fanda. I wonder if Isabel didn't pick Osmond partially because he loved his daughter. The novel takes a big jump in time there...we don't learn much of the courtship...but that's my guess. Still a dreadful choice. Ralph would have been better. As for Henry James...IMO you made a better starting point than I did. I read three of his later novels firs (The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl). I sort of hated all of them. But I liked (not loved), Portrait.

    1. I tended to believe that women are often unable to distinguish between men who are great as lovers or men worth to marry :)
      Osmond is eccentric and strong in mind--I think Isabel adores those qualities, because it is very similar to her.

      I have tried to read The Golden Bowl too...and failed to finish it. Now I don't know whether I would try again with his other novels.


What do you think?