The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Quotes


Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

Narrator, Chapter 1

These opening lines of the novel set up a little scene of perfection in which, on a tranquil lawn in front of a token English country home, three men are having tea on a perfect summer afternoon. Afternoon tea, that quintessentially English custom, symbolizes all that is restrained and conventional about the lives of these men. All three will soon, however, be very deeply and permanently affected by the entry of Isabel Archer into their perfect world.


She had been looking all round her ... a comprehensiveness of observation easily conceivable on the part of a young woman who was evidently both intelligent and excited.

Narrator, Chapter 2

Isabel Archer first appears in the second chapter of the novel, and the narrator describes her as observing her surroundings very carefully. The author establishes much of her character in this sentence. Readers understand Isabel is curious, smart, and enthusiastically interested in the new setting and people surrounding her.


She was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right; she treated herself to occasions of homage.

Narrator, Chapter 6

The author reveals Isabel Archer's flaw. Her intelligence has been praised, and it has led to pride. She is overly confident in her own opinions. Later in the novel, this fault will cost her dearly.


The idea of a diminished liberty was ... disagreeable to her ... since she had just given a ... personal accent to her independence by looking so straight at Lord Warburton's bit bribe and yet turning away.

Narrator, Chapter 13

Isabel Archer wants her freedom, and the value she places on her liberty can be seen in her refusal of Lord Warburton's marriage proposal. Lord Warburton offers a wife a large fortune, a title, and a half-dozen houses. Not even these bribes can tempt Isabel to give up her independence as a single woman.


If there's a thing in the world I'm fond of ... it's my personal independence.

Isabel Archer, Chapter 16

Isabel Archer gives this as the reason she will not agree to marry Caspar Goodwood when he comes to see her in London. He insists that he doesn't want to take her freedom, but she asks him to leave her alone for at least two years. She wants to experience and explore Europe.


You've too many graceful illusions. Your ... 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.

Henrietta Stackpole, Chapter 20

Henrietta Stackpole warns Isabel Archer that her inherited money will put her at the mercy of people who will use her own illusions to manipulate her, which is exactly what Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond do later. Henrietta believes Isabel is a people-pleaser whose chief illusion is that she can avoid unpleasant things by seeing the world romantically.


I don't pretend to know what people are meant for ... I only know what I can do with them.

Madame Merle, Chapter 22

Madame Merle is a master manipulator who uses people to get what she wants. Isabel Archer later says Madame Merle "made a convenience" of her. Mrs. Touchett agrees that Madame Merle treats everyone in this way.


She has only one fault ... too many ideas.

Gilbert Osmond, Chapter 26

Gilbert Osmond dislikes that Isabel Archer expresses her thoughts and opinions. Although he appears to value her intelligence, he would prefer that she merely reflect his own ideas. He tells Madame Merle that Isabel's ideas may be sacrificed.


They disliked ... Osmond. This dislike was not alarming to Isabel ... for it served mainly to throw into higher relief the fact ... that she married to please herself.

Narrator, Chapter 35

Isabel Archer is determined to marry Gilbert Osmond despite warnings from all of her friends and family. The very fact that everyone disapproves of Osmond strengthens her pride and conviction that she is making her own choice.


When a woman had made such a mistake, there was only one way to repair it—just immensely (oh, with highest grandeur!) to accept it.

Narrator, Chapter 40

Isabel Archer reflects on her unhappy marriage and believes that she freely chose to marry Gilbert Osmond. She must accept the consequence of her choice. She doesn't yet know of the deception of Madame Merle and Osmond.


It was her deep distrust of her husband—this was what darkened her world.

Narrator, Chapter 42

Isabel Archer's marriage is miserable, and her belief in Gilbert Osmond's deception is more a general impression than a specific suspicion at this point. She distrusts him mostly because she can tell he hates her. He spoils everything he touches.


The real offence, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his.

Narrator, Chapter 42

Isabel Archer realizes what Gilbert Osmond dislikes about her so much: he hates her imagination and opinions. He wants to control her—even her thoughts.


Leave your husband before the worst comes ... before your character gets spoiled.

Henrietta Stackpole, Chapter 48

Henrietta Stackpole tries to save Isabel Archer from Gilbert Osmond's damaging influence. She believes Osmond has the power to corrupt Isabel's character. Henrietta wants Isabel to leave him, to divorce Osmond, and she thinks the worst that could happen to Isabel is to stay with him and lose herself.


It had come over her like a high-surging wave that Mrs. Touchett was right. Madame Merle had married her.

Narrator, Chapter 49

Isabel Archer realizes she has been deceived and manipulated by Madame Merle. She had admired Madame Merle and valued her friendship. Isabel is shocked and overwhelmed by the realization that Madame Merle had actually tricked her into marrying Gilbert Osmond and that she continues to use Isabel to get what she wants. Isabel understands she has been subtly controlled without her knowledge.


To live only to suffer—only to feel the injury of life repeated ... it seemed to her she was too valuable, too capable, for that.

Narrator, Chapter 53

Isabel Archer considers whether she should go back to her husband. She knows he will punish her for the rest of her life, and she begins to wonder if she deserves better. She thinks she wants more from life than the misery she has known with Gilbert Osmond.

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