The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James: A review

Whenever one sees a list of "Great American Novels," Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady almost invariably appears on it. Indeed, one can find proponents of the idea among the literary cognoscenti that it is THE Great American Novel. And so, it was necessary that, in furtherance of my woefully lacking literary education, I should read it and decide if I agreed.

The first thing that I learned is that reading Henry James is not for the faint-hearted. This book, which is considered to be his masterpiece, was published in 1881 and it was written at a time when verbose, dense novels were in vogue. It certainly fits into that tradition. 

James writes sentences that go on for half a page or more. He never uses a one-syllable word when a three-syllable word is available. His paragraphs go on for pages without a break. The conversations of his characters are maddeningly oblique. They seem to be speaking in some kind of code to which I do not possess the key. 

Moreover, none of those characters, with the possible exceptions of Harriet and Ralph, are particularly likable. Are these the components of a great novel? If so, then here it is!

Even to one who had never before read the book, its story line is familiar. Isabel Archer, a young unmarried woman from Albany, New York, is orphaned and left adrift when her father dies. She has two older sisters both of whom are married and launched on lives of their own. Unexpectedly, her mother's sister, Lydia Touchett, arrives from Europe and proceeds to take her in hand and take her to Europe to further her education and find a husband for her. 

Isabel's image of herself is as a proud and independent woman who has no wish to marry and wants to make a life for herself on her own. On arriving in England, she meets her Uncle Touchett who is enchanted with her and, when he dies, leaves her a fortune. That money changes the course of Isabel's life. 

The thing about Isabel is that, both before and after becoming an heiress, every man she meets seems to fall helplessly in love with her. Men are always asking her to marry them. Why? Her great attraction was not at all clear to me.

Our anonymous Eye of God narrator, he who sees all, hears all, and knows all, refers to Isabel as an intellectual. He never gives any evidence to support that claim. In fact, she seems quite naive and occasionally downright stupid. We're told that she is not a great beauty. Her conversation always seems to be expressed in riddles that do not engage. She does not seem to have a great heart or a particular talent for friendship. So, again, explain to me why all these men are obsessed with her. 

She turns down perfectly worthy men who want to marry her and instead chooses the least worthy one in the pack, Gilbert Osmond of Florence. In her decision, she is skillfully and stealthily guided by her "friend" Madame Merle for reasons of her own which one suspects all along but which finally become clear near the end of this long book.

Osmond is penniless and he marries Isabel for her fortune and for what that fortune can do for his motherless daughter Pansy. Isabel at first is happy, but at some point - and we never really learn where or why - she sees her husband for what he is and her life becomes a misery. 

She has a baby boy who lives for only six months. This is referred to only in passing. We never learn why he died or what effect that might have had on the parents' relationship. Isabel never seems to think of the child again. The only bright spot in her life is Pansy, whom she learns to love. The once proud and independent Isabel is gone forever, as her destiny is taken from her hands by her marriage to the odious Gilbert. 

What point is James making here? It has been said that his special subject was the American encounter with Europe and what that had to teach us about the limits of independence. Social obligations constrict us and make us unable to always be at complete liberty to do what we please and to select our own destiny. And so the myth of the self-made American, an individual who is totally self-reliant and independent is just that - a myth. America and Americans are not set apart and exempt from the constraints of history. We are not special or exceptional, as some of us like to think of ourselves. ("American exceptionalism" are the watchwords of a certain political mindset in our country.) Rather, we are simply flotsam on the evolutionary flow of that human history of which we are all a part.

So, the question remains: Is this a great novel? It is a difficult read, at least for the modern reader. I didn't hate the book and I was never tempted to throw it across the room, but it was frustrating at times. The philosophical style of writing here was perhaps more popular and maybe even easier to understand in the late 19th century. The cultural references would have been fresher. But great novels hold up over the centuries and continue to have things to tell us about the human condition. The novel meets that test.

The ending of the novel is thoroughly ambiguous and leaves us to decide for ourselves what will happen to Isabel. That is, if we care


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