Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Henry James authored one of American literature’s prized realist masterpieces: The Portrait of a Lady. Considered a psychological novel, because of James’s microscopic emphasis into the innermost characterizations—internal action, circumstances, and how these forces develop external, plot moving actions—regarding his characters; he creates tantalizing themes of freedom versus oppression, and the progression, or degression, of self-knowledge through psychological and moral decisions—The Portrait of a Lady is a painting, lavishly brushed by words, which tells the truth of the human psyche.

            James’s psychological novel attaches significant emphasis on his characters innermost motives, and how they contemplate their external and internal circumstances, therefore, ultimately, weaving these inner tensions into external action—physical plot progression. James will time-and-time-again provide his readers with intimate, microscopic views into a character’s inner conflict. For example, consider Isabel Archer, the novel’s protagonist, “…I’m absorbed in myself—I look at life too much as a doctor’s prescription…Why should I be so afraid of not doing right? As if it mattered to the world whether I do right or wrong” (James 196). The psychological novel is, although prose fiction, a close study of humanity.

            In addition to the riches found within a character’s innermost motivations, another example of James’s prowess in developing his psychological novel is his unique use of theme. The masterpiece The Portrait of a Lady, although replete with sub-themes, is most recognized by Isabel Archer’s arcing struggles between oppression and freedom and independence versus destiny. Ezra Pound wrote, “What he [James] fights is ‘influence,’ the impinging of family pressure, the impinging of one personality upon another” (Quoted by Lane par. xvi). James detested tyranny and the petty personal oppressions he witnessed everyday persons inflict upon each other. His, literary, voice reflects this contempt throughout The Portrait of a Lady. It is the unique frequent indecisions of his protagonist Isabel Archer’s, her inner conflicts with external consequences, need to stand on one’s own self-sufficiency, and her culture’s desire to rein her into the larger world’s conformity of marriage and obedience, that makes this psychological novel worthy of its home in the pantheon of literary masterpieces.

            However, despite James’s impressive weave of great emphasis regarding inner character, and his larger theme of oppression versus freedom, there is yet another, stronger, undebatable footprint of the perfect psychological novel: James writes the truth. This truth is the selfish self-interest of other person’s desire for psychological domination (control) or, more common, the extent of scheming and ambitious lies some persons will steep to subdue and extinguish another’s light—a person’s innocence. For example, Osmond, Isabel Archer’s eventual husband and the novel’s chief antagonist, never fell in love with Isabel; he fooled her in order to subdue her; he wanted her as a trophy, “That is what monsters do, especially the polite and patient ones: they harvest souls. Hand them a human in full bloom, and what they give back to you, after a few seasons, is a pressed flower” (Lane par. xvi). Humanity is often a horror story, and happy endings are not realistic stories.

This point of realism, life is often a horror story, is very much the eternal truth of James’s psychological novel; a genre devoted to the analytic study of the human condition; and, in his, the plight of self-degeneration through psychological manipulation. In laymen terms, the hell one finds themselves in once they realize they have altered their entire life for someone based upon a lie. And like, Isabel, it is often that everyone else can see the truth, but the one under their oppressor’s influence. In Isabel’s case, she becomes a victim of her own designs, “Isabel proceeds to marry Osmond, who she believes loves her and with whom she thinks she can relinquish the pressure to perform. She unfortunately rather quickly discovers the ruse and realizes he is the suitor most desirous of wiping her clean of any interiority” (Krzeminski 279). Perhaps, it could be argued her remark a third of the way through the novel was spoken from complete naivety (innocence) and foreshadowed the suffering that later came, “…to judge wrong, I think, is more honorable than not to judge at all” (James 143). By the end of the novel, and by a stroke of writing genius on James’s part, these words were no longer her truth.

            Henry James painted his theme of oppression versus freedom with microscopic emphasis on his characters innermost conflicts. The Portrait of a Lady is a masterpiece, not because of good versus evil, or anecdotes of adventures and trials; the novel is a masterpiece because it captures, like none before and few after, the human psyche down to the finest detail. James’s work reflects the progression and digression of his protagonist’s self-knowledge. By the end, the reader is left hanging. Isabel Osmond, as she is now, refuses to satisfy us with any epiphanic change; she does not, after confessing her plight to Ralph and kissing Casper, break for freedom, but in James’s fashion, she is handcuffed by her situation, which she blames herself for allowing, and, thus, she goes on, like so many women did and still do, without freedom, and with every reader questioning why, back to her prison of a marriage.

            Together, the theme and Isabel’s, surprising, negative character arc creates arguably the best psychological novel ever to be written, per its genre. As the reader travels its pages, they are confronted with a mirror, a work replete with accusing self-examinations, and, therefore, the reader is left, not watching, but considering the raw complexity of the human psyche, their own psyche.

  The footprint of realism has always been to write the truth; the common man or woman’s plight, and the mental gymnastics all persons, from all classes, perform are what makes this novel a psychological masterpiece. Throughout these pages, the reader finds the brushwork of the master, and like all great artists, James can not only paint a story by the prowess of his craft, but, simultaneously, he hangs a mirror of enigmas and human complexity. Every reader can relate to the figurative handcuff’s persons’ finds themselves confined to.


James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. Seedbox Press, LLC. Apple Books, 2015, pp. 143-196. e—book.

Krzeminski, Jessica. “The discovery was tremendous: Sex, Secrets, and Selfhood in The Portrait of a Lady.” The Henry James Review, article, Vol. 40., Iss. 3, 2019,pp. 279. Accessed 2021.

Lane, Anthony. “Out of The Frame, A New Portrait of Henry James’s ‘The Portrait of a Lady.’” The New Yorker, article, Books, Iss. September 2012., par. XVI. Accessed 2021.

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