Portrait of a Lady (Review)

Labels: Great Works

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The Portrait of a Lady
Henry James, 1880-81
656 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
September 2009

The Portrait of a Lady is Henry James's most famous work, and Isabel Archer his most famous heroine. This is James at his best. (scholars would rise up in arms at that, but they're not reading this, I assure you.)

We follow Isabel, a beautiful and intellectually gifted young American woman, who longs for experience of the wider world, especially the world of Europe. A large inheritance offers her the freedom she needs to gain the experience she wants.

But inexperience breeds innocence and innocence can lead to naivety—and naivety is dangerous. Traveling to Florence, Isabel's friend Madame Merle introduces her to Gilbert Osmond, a man of refined and sophisticated tastes. Intelligent as she is, Isabel is too trusting—unable to grasp Osmond's true nature or the true nature of his friendship with Madame Merle.

Nothing is quite what it seems, and Isabel is no match for the pair who easily manipulate her to their own ends. Not until it's too late does Isabel realize how much of her treasured independence she has sacrificed—and what it has cost her.

Very much a Jamesian theme, this novel pits the open innocence of Americans against the deca-dence of Europeans. We also see how someone young and unformed—viewing life through the prism of a romantic imagination and believing in the right to individualism—becomes a victim of her own willfulness.

It's a chilling, wonderful story! And the big question for discussion groups is why Isabel makes the decision she does at the end. I'll say no more so as not to spoil the read. You might also show clips from the 1996 film version with Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich. (No-no-no...do not watch the film in lieu of the book.)

See our Reading Guide for The Portrait of a Lady.

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