Portrait of a Lady


Within Henry James’, Portrait of a Lady, it could be said that certain characters play a role in the eventual downfall and demise of Isabel Archer. However it would seem that these characters are to a lesser degree to blame than Isabel herself.


Isabel Archer on arriving in Europe is an innocent, naïve yet confident young American. It is her inherent qualities, dreams and desires that create the foundation on which her demise is built. It is through self-assured eyes that she idealizes and romanticizes the new, European world around her. It is because Isabel views her new environment so romantically that she is unprepared for its harsh realities that come from making mistakes. Isabel doesn’t see herself making mistakes as she strongly believes that she cannot. She is arrogantly and naively confident in all that she does (Tanner 1968). This is clearly shown in chapter six.


“She was in a habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right.”





Henrietta Stackpole (the American who could possibly play Isabel’s antithesis in that she views the world rationally and cynically) rightfully forecasts that this romantic illusion will ultimately be Isabel’s downfall (Tanner 1968).


“The peril for you is that you live too much in the world of your own dreams.”




However, taking Tanner’s (1968) view into account, it could also be said that certain qualities are inherent in everyone and that these values and attitudes simply make people who they are. Similarly, confidence, romantic ideals and self-assuredness is what makes Isabel Archer who she is. It could also be said that if not placed in certain surroundings that these intrinsic qualities would not lead to Isabel’s ultimate demise. Possibly Mrs. Touchett could thus be to blame for bringing Isabel to the particular environment and placing her in the European context which allowed these qualities to develop and grow into Isabel’s undoing.
Mrs. Touchett for her own selfish reasons and gains brings Isabel to Europe. She brings Isabel across from America simply because she is intellectual, courteous and beautiful. For Mrs. Touchett, Isabel becomes a party piece and point of discussion at social gatherings. Isabel is more of a delightful project for Mrs. Touchett than a result of her dedication to her family in America. Within the fourth chapter Mrs. Touchett refers to Isabel as though she is an object, something which is owned. She is quite possessive of her.


“She’s my niece; she’s not his.”


Ralph Touchett is quick to pick up on this and scolds his mother:


“Good Lord, dear mother; what a sense of property…”


On describing her first encounter with Isabel Mrs. Touchett describes it is as though she made a discovery, as though she uncovered some lost treasure or reward. Again reinforcing that Isabel is more of a selfish act than an act of loyalty to her family.


“I found her in an old house in Albany, sitting I a dreary room on a rainy day, reading a heavy book and boring herself to death.”





Mrs. Touchett makes it seems as though ‘finding’ Isabel it is though she rescued her.


“She didn’t know she was bored, but when I left her no doubt of it she seemed very grateful of the service. You may say I shouldn’t have enlightened her – I should have let her alone.”


In this passage, not only does she feel she has this ‘American girl’ a great favour but she also blatantly admits to Ralph that socially Isabel make Mrs. Touchett more attractive and thus more socially acceptable.


“I thought she would do me credit. I like to be well thought of, and for a woman of my age there’s no greater convenience, in some ways, than an attractive niece.”


Mrs. Touchett brings Isabel to a Europe very different to that of the America from where she has come. She is brought into a situation and environment where social stature and appearances are regarded highly. Innocently, Isabel regards this as a European ideal which should be accepted whole heatedly in order to fit in. Her need to be accepted into European society (and not to be looked down upon as simply an ‘American girl’) Isabel tries to adopt a similar sort of culture.


In light of this it can