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Henry James

Around her long neck she wears a strand of orange beads with a pendant set with a large pearl. A cluster of pearls — symbolic of purity, a crucial virtue for marriage — crown her elaborate hairstyle.

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Baldovinetti has used tiny white dots to emphasise the shape and sheen of the jewels. The portrait commemorates these as much as the woman herself and the prominence of their heraldry acts as a visual seal of the marital alliance. Golden hair, rosy lips and pale skin were the ideal of feminine beauty in fifteenth-century Florence, and were features of images of the Virgin Mary and pagan goddesses as well as portraits of high-status women.

A fine black band encircles the top of her forehead, drawing attention to her fashionably high hairline. Baldovinetti has used tiny white dots to emphasise the shape and sheen of the beads and pearls. You can also see these little dots, so characteristic of his technique, highlighting the contours of the nose, chin and thick folds of the fabric of the sleeves. The main aim of marriage was to create alliances between families, to strengthen their political and social fortunes — and to produce children. A girl had very little choice in her husband, as the contract was arranged by her family.

The perfect white spherical quality of the pearl, for example, symbolised purity — an essential virtue for a young woman at marriage.

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The cost of these items, as well as the commemoration of the marriage alliance, justified the expense of commissioning a portrait. The skill of the artist and the beauty of the bride would further enhance their reputation. Therefore, when he has once drawn Isabel Archer's character in one situation, the reader can anticipate how she will act in any other given situation. Her actions are not unexplainable. We are able to logically understand all of her actions. Thus James' realism would never allow the characters to perform actions which would be inconsistent with their true natures.

Almost all of James' novels are structured in the same way. There must be a center -something toward which all the lines point and which "supremely matters. The thing that "supremely matters" is the central idea of the novel or that idea around which the novel functions. In The Portrait of a Lady, the thing that "supremely matters" is for Isabel Archer to have the opportunity to develop freely to the limits of her own capacity.

She is seen as a person who has great potential, but she does not have that freedom which would allow her to develop her own innate qualities. Therefore, almost all of the scenes and action of the novel are designed to hinder or to bring to completion this chance for Isabel to attain her full capacity. James' creative process is also important to understanding the structure of his works. He begins his novels with a situation and a character. Many writers, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, would begin with an idea or theme in mind and then would create a situation and characters that would illuminate the basic idea, but James' technique is just the opposite.

He created a certain situation, and then he would place his characters in it. James would then, in effect, sit back and simply observe what would happen when a character was confronted with this new situation. Often, James said, he had- no particular ending in mind when he began a novel. Instead, he would let the character and situation determine the ending. This allowed him more freedom, and allowed him the opportunity of "getting to know" his character by observing him in a series of scenes. Thus, the central situation in The Portrait of a Lady is the arrival of a charming young girl in Europe who is restricted by having no means to travel and be free.

Many characters who meet her wonder what would happen if she were perfectly free to develop to her fullest.


The thing that "supremely matters" is the full development of Isabel Archer. Thus, it must be arranged to secure money for her and then we will simply watch her to see which of the great men of Europe she will finally choose for a husband. We have said that all lines must point toward the thing that supremely matters, but these lines do not follow a straight course. This is not the way James structures his novels. Everything in the novel is aimed at the central situation, but he moves toward the center by exploring all the related matters.

In other words, the structure could be best described by a series of circles around the center. The elder Touchett grows ill and, at the request of his son, Ralph, leaves much of his estate to Isabel upon his death. Although Isabel had previously rejected both Warburton and Goodwood, she accepts Osmond's proposal of marriage, unaware that it has been actively promoted by the accomplished but untrustworthy Madame Merle, another American expatriate, whom Isabel had met at the Touchetts' estate.

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  • Isabel and Osmond settle in Rome, but their marriage rapidly sours due to Osmond's overwhelming egotism and lack of genuine affection for his wife. Isabel grows fond of Pansy, Osmond's presumed daughter by his first marriage, and wants to grant her wish to marry Edward Rosier, a young art collector. The snobbish Osmond would prefer that Pansy accept the proposal of Warburton, who had previously proposed to Isabel. Isabel suspects, however, that Warburton may just be feigning interest in Pansy to get close to Isabel again, and the conflict creates even more strain within the unhappy marriage.

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    Isabel then learns that Ralph is dying at his estate in England and prepares to go to him for his final hours, but Osmond selfishly opposes this plan. Meanwhile, Isabel learns from her sister-in-law that Pansy is actually the daughter of Madame Merle, who had had an adulterous relationship with Osmond for several years. Isabel pays a final visit to Pansy, who desperately begs her to return someday, which Isabel reluctantly promises to do. She then leaves, without telling her spiteful husband, to comfort the dying Ralph in England, where she remains until his death.

    Goodwood encounters her at Ralph's estate, and begs her to leave Osmond and come away with him. He passionately embraces and kisses her, but Isabel flees. Goodwood seeks her out the next day but is told she has set off again for Rome. The ending is ambiguous, and the reader is left to imagine whether Isabel returned to Osmond to suffer out her marriage in noble tragedy perhaps for Pansy's sake , or she is going to rescue Pansy and leave Osmond.

    James's first idea for The Portrait of a Lady was simple: a young American woman confronting her destiny, whatever it might be. Only then did he begin to form a plot to bring out the character of his central figure. This was the uncompromising story of the free-spirited Isabel losing her freedom—despite or because of suddenly coming into a great deal of money—and getting "ground in the very mill of the conventional".

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    The Portrait of a Lady has received critical acclaim since its first publication in The Atlantic Monthly , and it remains the most popular of James's longer fictions. Contemporary critics recognise that James had pushed the analysis of human consciousness and motivation to new levels, particularly in such passages as the famous Chapter 42, where Isabel meditates deep into the night about her marriage and the trap she seems to have fallen into.

    More recent criticism has been levied by feminists. In particular, Isabel's final return to Osmond has fascinated critics, who have debated whether James sufficiently justifies this seemingly paradoxical rejection of freedom. One interpretation is: Isabel both feels as honour-bound to the promise she has made to stepdaughter Pansy as she does to her marriage to Osmond, and she believes that the scene her "unacceptable" trip to England will create with Osmond will leave her in a more justifiable position to abandon her dreadful marriage.

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    The extensive revisions James made for the New York Edition have generally been accepted as improvements, unlike the changes he made to other texts, such as The American or Roderick Hudson. The revision of the final scene between Isabel and Goodwood has been especially applauded. As Edward Wagenknecht noted, James "makes it as clear as any modern novelist could make it by using all the four-letter words in the dictionary that [Isabel] has been roused as never before in her life, roused in the true sense perhaps for the first time in her life.

    The Portrait of a Lady