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 from America to Europe for worldly experiences. Although Isabel begins the novel a spirited individual who embodies the best elements of the New World, she is captivated by the allure of Old World values that then trap her into a dreadful marriage. Through this situation, James suggests that the Old World tradition of social duty is far more limiting and harmful than New World individualism.
Although James shows New World values in positive and negative lights, none of The Portrait’s characters are significantly devastated by New World behaviors, such as individualism, independence, and forward-looking optimism. At the novel’s opening, Isabel exhibits the best of New World values—she is spirited, curious, ambitious, and independent, all qualities that endear her to her peers. She never significantly harms any character except her own self through her choice in marriage. Caspar Goodwood, the successful American business who dislikes England but follows Isabel there to pursue her hand in marriage, is the epitome of a New World man due to his modern outlook and unfailing self-confidence. Despite his tendency to sometimes act in a thoughtless or ruthless manner (perhaps the underbelly of such spirited optimism), he does not disadvantage any of The Portrait’s characters. Like Goodwood, Isabel’s friend Henrietta Stackpole, a journalist, is forcefully American in her blunt manner and career-driven lifestyle. Although she offends numerous people during her European travels, she never deals any major harm.
By contrast, James uses a much heavier hand in criticizing the more unsavory aspects of the Old World. Although feudal Old World traditions are often imbued with sophistication and morality, as seen through Lord Warburton and Ralph Touchett, the accompanying decadence and social duty that Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle embody prove disastrous for Isabel Archer. A number of The Portrait’s main characters possess admirable Old World qualities. Lord Warburton is noble, gallant, and gracious, while Ralph is courteous, kind, and the novel’s moral compass in terms of his astute reading of other characters. Both men fit almost perfectly into Old World social and moral codes. Like Ralph, Osmond and Madame Merle are American expatriates who identify much more readily with the European cultures they have lived in for so long. However, Osmond and Merle encapsulate an Old World decadence that ensnares the naïve Isabel. They have the appearance of sophistication and taste, but lack morality entirely. Osmond in particular favors the worst of Old World values to the point that he treats his daughter and new wife as possessions that add merit to his tasteful art collection. He and Madame Merle invisibly manipulate Isabel into an unfavorable marriage compared to Caspar Goodwood and Henrietta Stackpole’s frank desire for Isabel to marry Goodwood.
Old World values ultimately trap Isabel in a lifestyle opposite to the New World individualism she has long desired, revealing James’s underlying warning that the European Old World is stifling and even harmful in its commitment to propriety and social duty. Isabel is an ideal New World woman whose passion for Europe leads to sophisticated experiences and newfound wealth, but ultimately personal misfortune. After falling victim to Madame Merle and Osmond’s scheme, she feels morally obliged to stay loyal to Osmond in their terrible marriage. Isabel ultimately demonstrates greater integrity than the Old World villains, refusing to follow in Osmond and Madame Merle’s footsteps in ignoring social duty and moral conscience. However, by giving up the chance to escape her vile husband (Goodwood gives her the opportunity to run away with him and leave her husband), she has to relinquish her American-bred independence. In the clash between two worlds, Henry James uses Isabel’s demise to represent entrenched European Old World values as more dangerous and powerful than starry-eyed New World ideas like optimism, innovation, and individualism.
The European Old World vs. the American New World ThemeTracker
The European Old World vs. the American New World 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.
“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.
“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.
“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 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.
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.
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.
“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.”