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 in multiple offers of marriage, many of which come from men of towering social standing and wealth. But unlike the traditional Victorian marriage plot, James’s novel does not culminate in happy matrimony for the protagonist. Despite Isabel’s driving ambition to secure a life in which she is free to choose her own values and actions, she marries Gilbert Osmond, a man who reveals himself as a controlling and Machiavellian character who despises female independence. Isabel’s entrapment in marriage reflects the novel’s other undesirable ones, which suggest that female independence cannot exist within a Victorian marriage.
Throughout the novel, Isabel’s actions are motivated by the need to prove her personal freedom to herself and to the world at large. This occurs most significantly when she shocks her peers with her rejections of Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood’s respective marriage proposals; either would have been an extremely advantageous social match for Isabel. Women of the time were expected to marry, and marriage for social gain was more common (and, perhaps, more respected) than for love. Rather than graciously accept one of the advantageous offers, Isabel rejects them both, seeing her unmarried status as an anchor of her independence in a culture dominated by masculine desire.
When Isabel finally marries, she does so believing that it was her personal choice to accept Gilbert Osmond’s marriage proposal—rather than an arrangement someone thrust upon her or society pressured her into—given that Osmond doesn’t boast of social currency or wealth. Rather than embodying her independent mind and spirit, however, Isabel’s decision to marry actually results in the sacrifice of her personal liberties. Readers are likely stunned by Isabel’s choice of husband, as are her peers. In fact, Isabel ignores her family and friends’ warnings about Osmond’s poor character. She believes he is a noble aesthete (an individual of cultivated tastes), and that it is her choice to socially limit herself by marrying a man with little wealth or career prospects. Due to her own newly inherited wealth from her late uncle, Isabel is certain that she is actually exercising her personal freedom in empowering Osmond to fulfil his seemingly noble aesthetic ideals. However, Osmond’s aesthetic pursuits turn out to be a farce, for they are not ethically principled as Isabel believed. Osmond’s mask drops after their marriage, and he quashes Isabel’s ideas and desires—he will not stand for female independence, evidenced in his upbringing of his wholly obedient daughter, Pansy, whom he’s confined to a Swiss convent. Isabel’s noble intentions have resulted in a tethered existence where she bears the whims of her husband. Furthermore, the narrative reveals Isabel’s decision to marry Osmond was actually orchestrated by Madame Merle—a friend of Isabel’s aunt, Mrs. Touchett—and Osmond himself. Isabel’s biggest life decision, which she believed was firmly rooted in independent thought, was carefully designed by others who did not have her best interests at heart. Isabel is appalled by her mistake in marriage, and Goodwood offers her an easy escape to run away with him. Instead of leaving Osmond, though, Isabel decides she must bear her marriage to honor her commitment to him. Isabel’s character development has shifted from prioritizing a woman’s choice to yielding to patriarchal and social authority. As she tells her cousin Ralph, she will do what is ethically right rather than choose independence from her wicked husband.
Beyond Isabel’s nightmarish marriage, James peppers the novel with other failed and non-functional marriages, emphasizing that female independence cannot effectively exist within the confines of a Victorian marriage. Examples include the Countess Gemini’s well-known infidelity, the revelation that Osmond was unfaithful to his first wife, and the Touchett’s dysfunctional marriage that has only lasted a respectable lifetime because Mr. Touchett and his wife reside in separate countries for most of the year. James’s widespread depiction of matrimonial misery paints marriage as a cage that limits women due to their social duty to bend to their husbands’ desires.
Although Isabel has been deceived into a terrible marriage, she is not a tragic figure. Isabel ends the novel by choosing to return to Rome to live with Osmond (or so readers are led to believe by Isabel’s friend Henrietta Stackpole, her account the only explanation of Isabel’s whereabouts that James includes at the narrative’s conclusion). Isabel therefore exerts her own will to honor her moral commitment rather than her desired independent lifestyle. Paradoxically, her decision to return to the shackles of her dreadful marriage can perhaps be viewed as a retrospective freedom of choice as well as a certain future of dutiful matrimonial obedience. The costs of The Portrait of a Lady’s multiple dismal marital unions, though, suggest that James—himself a rebel who defied his family’s wishes by never marrying—did not have confidence in the righteousness of marriage.
Female Independence vs. Marriage ThemeTracker
Female Independence vs. Marriage Quotes in The Portrait of a Lady
“Oh no; she has not adopted me. I’m not a candidate for adoption.”
“I beg a thousand pardons,” Ralph murmured. “I meant—I meant—“ he hardly knew what he meant.
“You meant she has taken me up. Yes; she likes to take people up. She has been very kind to me; but,” she added with a certain visible eagerness of desire to be explicit, “I’m very fond of my liberty.”
“I don’t see what you’ve against her except that she’s so original.”
“Well, I don’t like originals; I like translations,” Mr Ludlow had more than once replied. “Isabel’s written in a foreign tongue. I cant make her out. She ought to marry an Armenian or a Portugese.”
“That’s just what I’m afraid she’ll do!” cried Lilian, who thought Isabel capable of anything.
Isabel Archer was a young person of many theories; her imagination was remarkably active. It had been her fortune to possess a finer mind than most of the persons among whom her lot was cast; to have a larger perception of surrounding facts and to care for knowledge that was tinged with the unfamiliar. […] It may be affirmed without delay that Isabel was probably very liable to the sin of self-esteem; she often surveyed with complacency the field of her own nature; she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right; she treated herself to occasions of homage. Meanwhile her errors and delusions were frequently such as a biographer interested in preserving the dignity of his subject must shrink from specifying.
“I like the great country stretching away beyond the rivers and across the prairies, blooming and smiling, and spreading till it stops at the green Pacific! A strong, sweet, fresh odour seems to rise from it, and Henrietta—pardon my simile—has something of that odour in her garments.”
“I’m not sure the Pacific’s so green as that,” he said; “but you’re a young woman of imagination. Henrietta, however, does smell of the Future—it almost knocks one down!”
In so far as the indefinable had an influence upon Isabel’s behaviour at this juncture, it was not the conception, even unformulated, of a union with Caspar Goodwood; for however she might have resisted conquest at her English suitor’s large quiet hands she was at least as far removed from the disposition to let the young man from Boston take positive possession of her. […] The idea of a diminished liberty was particularly disagreeable to her at present.
“If there’s a thing in the world I’m fond of,” she went on with a slight recurrence of grandeur, “it’s my personal independence.”
Isabel’s words, if they meant to shock him, failed of the mark and only made him smile with the sense that here was common ground. “Who would wish less to curtail your liberty than I? What can give me greater pleasure than to see you perfectly independent—doing whatever you like? It’s to make you independent that I want to marry you. […] An unmarried woman—a girl of your age—isn’t independent. There are all sorts of things she can’t do. She’s hampered at every step.”
“I’m not in my first youth—I can do whatever I choose—I belong quite to the independent class. I’ve neither father nor mother; I’m poor and of a serious disposition; I’m not pretty. I therefore am not bound to be timid and conventional; indeed I can’t afford such luxuries. Besides, I try to judge things for myself; to judge wrong, I think, is more honourable to not to judge at all. I don’t wish to be a mere sheep in the flock; I wish to choose my own fate and know something of human affairs beyond what other people think it compatible with propriety to tell me.”
“Do you know where you’re drifting?” Henrietta pursued, holding out her bonnet delicately.
“No, I haven’t the least idea, and I find it very pleasant not to know. A swift carriage, on a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one cant see—that’s my idea of happiness.”
“You’re a creature of risks—you make me shudder!” cried Henrietta.
“Even the hardest iron pots have a little bruise, a little hole somewhere. I flatter myself that I’m rather stout, but I must if I must tell you the truth I’ve been shockingly chipped and cracked. I do very well for service yet, because I’ve been cleverly mended.”
“You should live in your own land; whatever it may be you have your natural place there. If we’re not good Americans we’re certainly poor Europeans; we’ve no natural place here. We’re mere parasites, crawling over the surface; we haven’t our feet in the soil. At least one can know it and not have illusions. A woman perhaps can get on; a woman, it seems to me, has no natural place anywhere; wherever she finds herself she has to remain on the surface and, more or less, to crawl.”
“The peril for you is that you live too much in the world of your own dreams. You’re not enough in contact with reality—with the toiling, striving, suffering, I may even say sinning, world that surrounds you. You’re too fastidious; you’ve too many graceful illusions. Your newly-acquired thousands will shut you up more and more to the society of a few selfish and heartless people who will be interested in keeping them up.”
The villa was a long, rather blank-looking structure […] [It’s] antique, solid, weather-worn, yet imposing front had a somewhat incommunicative character. It was the mask, not the face of the house. It had heavy lids, but no eyes; the house in reality looked another way—looked off behind, into splendid openness and the range of the afternoon light. […] The windows of the ground-floor, as you saw them from the piazza, were, in their noble proportions, extremely architectural; but their function seemed less to offer communication with the world than to defy the world to look in.
We know that he was fond of originals, of rarities, of the superior and the exquisite; and now that he had seen Lord Warburton, whom he thought a very fine example of his race and order, he perceived a new attraction of taking to himself a young lady who had qualified herself to figure in his collection of choice objects by declining so noble a hand. […] It would be proper that the woman he might marry should have done something of that sort.
“Is it a marriage your friends won’t like?” he demanded.
“I really haven’t an idea. As I say, I don’t marry for my friends.”
He went on, making no exclamation, no comment, only asking questions, doing it quite without delicacy. “Who and what then is Mr Gilbert Osmond?”
“Who and what? Nobody and nothing but a very good and very honourable man. He’s not in business,” said Isabel. “He’s not rich; he’s not known for anything in particular.”
Ralph was shocked and humiliated; his calculations had been false and the person in the world in whom he was most interested was lost. He drifted about the house like a rudderless vessel in a rocky stream, or sat in the garden of the palace on a great cane chair, his long legs extended, his head thrown back and his hat pulled over his eyes. He felt cold about the heart; he had never liked anything less. What could he do, what could he say? If the girl was irreclaimable could he pretend to like it? To attempt to reclaim her was permissible only if the attempt should succeed. To try to persuade her of anything sordid or sinister in the man to whose deep art she had succumbed would be decently discreet only in the event of her being persuaded.
“Pray, would you wish me to make a mercenary marriage—what they call a marriage of ambition? I’ve only one ambition—to be free to follow out a good feeling. I had others once, but they’ve passed away. Do you complain of Mr Osmond because he’s not rich? That’s just what I like him for. I’ve fortunately money enough; I’ve never felt so thankful for it as to-day. There have been moments when I should like to go and kneel down by your father’s grave: he did perhaps a better thing than he knew when he put it into my power to marry a poor man—a man who has born his poverty with such dignity, with such indifference. […] Mr. Osmond makes no mistakes! He knows everything, he understands everything, he has the kindest, gentlest, highest spirit.”
The elation of success, which surely now flamed high in Osmond, emitted meanwhile very little smoke for so brilliant a blaze. […] He was immensely pleased with his young lady; Madame Merle had made him a present of incalculable value. […] What could be a happier gift in a companion than a quick, fanciful mind which saved one repetitions and reflected one’s thought on a polished, elegant surface? […] this lady’s intelligence was to be a silver plate, not an earthen one—a plate that he might heap up with ripe fruits, to which it would give a decorative value, so that talk might become for him a sort of served dessert.
The object of Mr. Rosier’s well-regulated affection dwelt in a high house in the very heart of Rome; a dark and massive structure overlooking a sunny piazzetta in the neighbourhood of the Farnese Palace. In a palace, too, little Pansy lived—a palace by Roman measure, but a dungeon to poor Rosier’s apprehensive mind. It seemed to him of evil omen that the young lady he wished to marry, and whose fastidious father he doubted of his ability to conciliate, should be immured in a kind of domestic fortress […] he could see that the proportions of the windows and even the details of the cornice had quite the grand air.
He took his course to the adjoining room and met Mrs. Osmond coming out of the deep doorway. She was dressed in black velvet; she looked high and splendid, as he had said, and yet oh so radiantly gentle! […] She had lost something of that quick eagerness to which her husband had privately taken exception—she had more the air of being able to wait. Now, at all events, framed in the gilded doorway, she struck our young man as the picture of a gracious lady.
“If she should marry Lord Warburton I should be very glad,” Isabel went on frankly. “He’s an excellent man. You say, however, that she only to sit perfectly still. Perhaps she won’t sit perfectly still. If she loses Mr. Rosier she may jump up!”
Osmond appeared to give no heed to this; he sat gazing at the fire. “Pansy would like to be a great lady,” he remarked in a moment with a certain tenderness of tone. “She wishes above all to please,” he added.
The real offence, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his—attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park. He would take the soil gently and water the flowers; he would weed the best and gather an occasional nosegay. It would be a pretty piece of property for a proprietor already far-reaching.
“One’s daughter should be fresh and fair; she should be innocent and gentle. With the manners of the present time she is liable to become so dusty and crumpled. Pansy’s a little dusty, a little dishevelled; she has knocked about too much. This bustling, pushing rabble that calls itself society—one should take her out of it occasionally. Convents are very quiet, very convenient, very salutary. I like to think of her there, in the old garden, under the arcade, among those tranquil virtuous women. Many of them are gentlewomen born; several of them are noble. She will have her books and her drawing, she will have her piano. I’ve made the most liberal arrangements.”
Isabel saw it all as distinctly as if it had been reflected in a large clear glass. It might have been a great moment for her, for it might have been a moment of triumph. That Madame Merle has lost her pluck and saw before her the phantom of exposure—this in itself was a revenge, this in itself was almost the promise of a brighter day.
“Why shouldn’t we be happy—when it’s here before us, when it’s so easy? I’m yours for ever—for ever and ever. Here I stand; I’m as firm as a rock. What have you to care about? You’ve no children; that perhaps would be an obstacle. As it is you’ve nothing to consider. You must save what you can of your life; you mustn’t lose it all simply because you’ve lost a part. It would be an insult to you to assume that you care for the look of the thing, for what people will say, for the bottomless idiocy of the world. We’ve nothing to do with all that; we’re quite out of it; we look at things as they are. You took the great step in coming away; the next is nothing; it’s the natural one.”