Warning: Spoilers

I have a natural affinity for Americans, being one myself. What’s more, I feel particular kinship to Yankees who end up in strange lands, as I myself have.

The Portrait of a Lady, written by Henry James and published in the States around 1880, features Yankee Isabel Archer as she travels to Europe and “confronts her destiny.” There are a few things James did with this novel that hadn’t been done before – stream of consciousness narrative and significant attention to the motivation of characters. Any modern reader, more than 100 years later, will have regular exposure to these literary elements. It’s worthwhile remembering that James’ contemporaries didn’t write this way. It was new and different. Keeping that in mind helps with the agonizingly detailed narrative of minutiae.

A book so old has been reviewed many times, and by many better than I. My only real contribution to the conversation can be a guess at the finale and Isabel Archer’s confounding decision to return to her creep of a husband.

For those who haven’t read it, here’s a quick and dirty. Isabel is picked up by a traveling aunt and taken to England, where she is deposited with her old uncle and her sickly cousin, Ralph. Isabel and Ralph become good friends (they are never romantically involved). Several men propose to Isabel; she turns them all down. Ralph fixes it so Isabel gets part of his inheritance when the old uncle dies. That way, spirited, idealistic Isabel has the means to make her way in the world the way she wants to. Essentially, he enables her grand ideas to become grand realities. She then marries a terrible guy, they live a miserable life, and even when she has a chance to ditch him she ultimately stays with him.

There’s a TON of literary rumblings about why Isabel goes back to Osmond at the end of the novel. I’m going to say upfront that I have no idea why; I think it was a terrible decision.

I also think it is a GREAT ending to the book.

This book stands in contrast to other (also good) “marriage” type books written earlier by authors like Jane Austen and lots of soppy romance garbage written after (like Twilight). In those tales, the married relationship is the happy cap to a tale of angst. In those books, weddings solve problems or make life better. In James’ Portrait, however, the wedding is the start and cause of the problems. Rather than “rescuing” Isabel, the men in her life only complicate and confound her. Rather than being her wonderful prince-and-also-best-friend, Osmond is a royal jerk. Marriage is not the answer. “Wedded” does not equal bliss.

I’m not clear that James was going for that kind of subversive ending but I have the benefit of 100+ years of literary tradition after it to enjoy the point. I also kind of like that Isabel stuck to her decision, even though it was a crappy one. She picked the guy, and she picked badly. She recognizes it, but also (I think) seems to realize that her unhappiness with her choice is not enough of a reason to break the matrimonial bonds. In true Yankee fashion, she’s a gal of her word, even when sticking to it is truly the worst thing that could happen to her.

After mulling over the novel for a few weeks I find myself wondering not so much why Isabel made the decision she did, but why James wrote her like that. What point is he ultimately making about women? What is he saying about marriage? Where is the value? What am I supposed to take away from this novel?

These questions that I’m still considering and trying to answer weeks later are why I rate this book so highly. I’m not looking forward to reading it again (it’s so loooooooooong) but I feel like I must. That, I think, is the mark of a great author. I care so much about the story that I’m willing to overlook the agonizing narrative.

Does that even make sense? Maybe it doesn’t have to. It’s Henry James, for Pete’s sake.


Portrait of a Lady
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