The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Henry James

Henry James was born in 1843 to a wealthy New York City family, with his father a clergyman and well-connected intellectual. James’s older brother William became a highly regarded psychologist and philosopher, while his younger sister Alice was an accomplished diarist. The family traveled extensively during James’s youth, residing in London, Paris, and Geneva. As an adult, James departed America to live in Europe for a twenty-year period, based in France and England. He drew on his Transatlantic experiences to write often on the topic of Americans living in Europe, and vice versa. At first creating straightforward and simplistic texts, James began to focus on writing dramas and short stories, before entering a new career phase in which he completed long and complex novels. He was a dedicated observer of human behaviors, himself a socially awkward individual who never married and formed few close friendships. Gaining British citizenship in 1915, he was awarded a British Order of Merit the following year for services to World War I. James died in 1916, likely the result of stroke three months earlier. Throughout his life he produced a prolific literary output of approximately twenty novels and numerous short stories and letters
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Historical Context of The Portrait of a Lady

The influence of James’s European experiences is central to his works, including The Portrait of a Lady, as he specialized in contrasting American “New World” progressiveness against European “Old World” sophistication. American audiences were greatly invested in Transatlantic tourism during James’s lifetime; the United States experienced economic prosperity after the Civil War, and Americans began to increasingly travel or permanently move to Europe. James socialized with elite crowds while living in France and London for a twenty-year period. He particularly admired English aristocracy and opposed the social desire for democracy that was gaining widespread traction in Britain, and inserted both attitudes into The Portrait. His novel is also set against the background of Aestheticism, a literary and artistic movement that privileged the pursuit of “art for art’s sake” without requiring social or moral purpose. Certain characters such as Gilbert Osmond and Ralph Touchett embody aesthetic ideals because they pursue artistic objects for beauty alone.

Other Books Related to The Portrait of a Lady

Bridging the literary periods of realism and modernism, Henry James wrote in a unique style of the time that was noted—indeed largely criticized—by contemporary audiences for its lack of substantial plot. In this move toward modernist fiction, James was greatly influenced by Ivan Turgenev, a Russian author who focused on character development at the expense of action. As a work of psychological realism, The Portrait of a Lady is similar to intensely character-driven novels by renowned writers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Edith Wharton (who was also mentored by James), Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Arthur Miller, and Patrick McGrath. Of particular note is Wharton’s The Reef for its thematic similarities to The Portrait in featuring American characters experiencing complicated romantic entanglements in various European locations. Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner’s respective Mrs. Dalloway and The Sound and the Fury are also acclaimed for their use of stream of consciousness in scenes that echo Isabel’s motionless reflections on her marriage in The Portrait. Like The Portrait, James’s novels Daisy Miller, Washington Square, and The Bostonians are all narratives about American women who confront challenges in identity and independence. More recently, John Banville has written a sequel to James’s The Portrait of a Lady called Mrs. Osmond, which continues on from James’s ambiguous ending regarding Isabel’s decisions after Ralph’s death.
Key Facts about The Portrait of a Lady
  • Full Title: The Portrait of a Lady
  • When Written: 1879-1881
  • Where Written: London, Paris, Florence, Rome, and Venice
  • When Published: First published as a serial in America’s The Atlantic and England’s Macmiltan’s Magazine in 1880-1881. First published as a novel in 1881 and extensively revised in 1908.
  • Literary Period: Realism and modernism
  • Genre: Psychological realism
  • Setting: England, Italy, France, and the United States
  • Climax: Isabel, sitting in her room, reflects on her unhappy marriage and considers the events that led her here.
  • Antagonist: Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for The Portrait of a Lady

Family Inspiration. Critics agree that James based the The Portrait of a Lady’s Isabel Archer on his beloved cousin, the energetic and charismatic Minny Temple, who tragically died at age twenty-four.

Brotherly Influence. Despite a keen rivalry throughout their lives, it seems that siblings Henry and William James influenced one another greatly. Henry James is much admired for the intense psychological modes performed in his works, while his brother was a psychologist often described as writing like a novelist, even publishing some of his own pieces in literary outlets.