The Portrait of a Lady

by

Henry James

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Themes and Colors
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
Art and Morality Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Portrait of a Lady, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Female Independence vs. Marriage

Isabel Archer, the protagonist of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, is a fiercely independent young woman who departs from America to explore the enchanting world of Europe. Defying the social expectation that she be obedient and dependent on a man, Isabel is determined to forge a life in which she prioritizes personal freedom—she will not stand for others to impose their will on her. During Isabel’s travels, her dynamic personality results…

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The European Old World vs. the American New World

Henry James wrote a number of stories that contrasted American New World values of ingenuity, optimism, and new money against the European Old World values of sophistication, decadence, and a history steeped in hierarchy and tradition. James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady plays on this international contrast; James himself was an American who spent significant time living in Europe, and The Portrait’s protagonist, Isabel Archer, is a young woman who similarly travels…

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Art and Morality

In Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer is an independent young American woman who travels to Europe to experience cultures steeped in history and tradition. James richly imbues Isabel’s story with details of the art that she views while sightseeing and visiting private homesteads. Of particular note are the art collections belonging to Ralph Touchett (Isabel’s cousin) and Gilbert Osmond (Isabel’s future husband). In Europe, aesthetic taste demonstrates sophistication. As Isabel…

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The Dangers of Wealth

Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady describes the formative years of Isabel Archer, a spirited and idealistic American woman who travels to Europe from her home state of New York in order to experience the sophisticated culture of countries such as England, France, and Italy. Isabel is a young woman of no means who has so far happily partaken in life with a will to exercise her personal liberty in all regards, and…

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