Portrait of a Lady

1737 Words Aug 24th, 2011 7 Pages
First written in the 1880s and extensively revised in 1908, The Portrait of a Lady is often considered to be James's greatest achievement. In it, he explored many of his most characteristic themes, including the conflict between American individualism and European social custom and the situation of Americans in Europe.
James proclaimed that “The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent reality.” Plot was for him but the extension of character. The novel must show rather than tell — he was interested in why people did as they did, rather than simply in what they did; motive was more important than deed. The observer of the dinner table and the drawing room, the country house and the salon, the library
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But the narrative technique did not allow for it. So in the end The portrait of the Lady is finally not a modernist novel. There is no such a thing yet as the autonomy of the character; truly an exploration of a character’s psychological frame or mind, options. In a way Isabel remains emplotted by James.
Like most of James's fiction of the 1870s, and the majority of his writing for the rest of his career, Portrait focuses on a group of expatriate Americans in England and Europe. Leisured, cultured, but just a bit bored, Daniel Touchett and his son Ralph are idly passing their time at Daniel's country estate, Gardencourt, but find themselves reenergized when Daniel's all but estranged wife, Lydia, brings with her to England her niece, a beautiful and enthusiastic orphan named Isabel Archer. Isabel is everything these men are not: lively, enthusiastic, and alert, she is a less flirtatious, more thoughtful version of Daisy Miller. But this American Girl, too, has the resistance to convention that both marks the type and makes its fate so problematic; when her Aunt Lydia reproaches her for staying up late to talk to Ralph and his friend, Lord Warburton, Isabel thanks her for informing her of the social prohibition but claims that she wants this knowledge only "so as to choose" whether to follow it.
Despite, or perhaps because of, this very American insistence on freedom of choice, Isabel attracts one suitor after another: first Lord Warburton; then
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