The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Themes


Female Freedom

Henry James explores the theme of freedom mostly as it relates to the female characters in the novel, most likely because the male characters enjoy almost unlimited freedom already, being relatively wealthy. Because the novel centers on Isabel Archer, her freedom is the one most extensively developed. The first sentence about Isabel in the text comes from Mrs. Touchett's telegram, describing Isabel as "quite independent." One of the first things she tells her cousin Ralph Touchett about herself is "I'm very fond of my liberty." She had already asserted her independence to Mrs. Touchett when her aunt offered to take her to Europe, telling her aunt she would not promise to obey her every word. Above all, Isabel wants to see the world that she believes to be a realm "of free expansion"; it is for this reason she rejects Lord Warburton's offer of marriage despite his vast wealth "in favor of the free exploration of life." It is the same reason she gives Caspar Goodwood when she rejects him. She wants to "be free even to [do some atrocity] if the fancy takes [her]." She wants to make her own decisions and not be tied down.

Although Isabel is so naive she doesn't realize it, she is constrained by her lack of money. Ralph knows that Isabel's ability to truly explore the world are limited by her resources, and it is his desire to "make her free" to do whatever she wants, to "never have to marry for support." He cherishes the idea he will "see her going before the breeze," sailing like a ship that goes whichever way the wind blows.

In contrast, Madame Merle is not free. Readers can infer that she moves from friend's house to friend's house most of the year because she lacks her own income. She is a widow, and she has no professions, so she must rely on others. She also has a sense of obligation to her daughter, Pansy Osmond, hoping to provide a future for the girl, even though Pansy does not know Madame Merle is her mother. It is for these reasons Madame Merle covets Isabel's money. Ironically, because of Madame Merle's manipulations, Isabel comes to find herself in similar bondage. Her money, because it attracts Madame Merle and Osmond, is the very means by which she comes under the control of Osmond. She is no longer free to explore the world and make her own decisions. She must obey her husband or face consequences.

The author offers yet another version of female freedom in Mrs. Touchett. Although she is married and relies, presumably, on her husband's income, Mrs. Touchett acts with nearly complete freedom and autonomy from her husband. She makes and looks after her own investments. She bought her own home abroad and lives independently from her husband and son. She does feel some obligation to her family, however, visiting once a year and sitting at their dying bedsides. Mrs. Touchett's independence is extreme for a woman in her position, and other characters find her extraordinary and blunt.

The final picture of female freedom explored in the novel is Henrietta Stackpole, who represents new possibilities for women. She is unmarried and has her own job. She supports herself and makes her own choices. She flouts social norms by traveling alone and with an unmarried man without a chaperone. It is a good thing she doesn't care what people think because this type of freedom did not go unnoticed at the time, and most other characters in the novel find Henrietta abrasive, inappropriate, and highly unusual. Female freedom is an ideal not realized without some sort of cost.

America Versus Europe

A central theme to all transatlantic fiction is the contrast between American and European values and conventions, and the interactions between their inhabitants. In the novel, American expatriates navigate their new homes in Europe with varying degrees of assimilation. New to Europe, Americans Isabel, Henrietta, and Caspar offer perhaps the best contrast to their European setting and counterparts.

American views on sex, affairs, and flirtation are innocent and principled in contrast with the more experienced, relaxed European perspective. Isabel questions Osmond's assertion that all married women have lovers and Countess Gemini's claim that all husbands flirt with other women. The countess finds nothing remarkable in the fact that her husband has had numerous affairs, and it is implied that she has, too. Henrietta is appalled at the countess's characterization of Lord Warburton's visit to the Osmond home in Rome as "making love to Isabel." The idea alarms her, and she departs quickly to protect her friend's reputation. Caspar acknowledges that Isabel's leaving her husband and taking up with him would cause a scandal in America, but he would willingly ignore the gossip if she would do it.

While European views on sex may have been more progressive than American ones, their ideas about female expression are not. The author characterizes American girls as individuals taught to think and express their ideas freely, while British women are not. Isabel is a young lady, "like the mass of American girls, ... [who] had been encouraged to express herself; her remarks had been attended to; she had been expected to have emotions and opinions." Isabel has a great imagination and develops and believes in her own pet theories, stating her opinions with great confidence. This independence of thought and expression are quite in contrast to Lord Warburton's sisters, who are described as unoriginal and shy, in need of drawing out. When Isabel asks them about their brother's radical political beliefs, they don't seem to understand what she means, answering her questions with more questions. They finally assert that they are sure their brother will do what he thinks is right. Pansy, who has been raised by European nuns, is another contrast to the American brashness and originality of women like Isabel and Henrietta. Pansy offers opinions only when asked and is so mild mannered, readers hardly know she has her own thoughts until Isabel asks her what she wants toward the end of the novel. She is subservient to her father, deferring to his preferences rather than expressing her own. It almost seems his opinions become her own, something Osmond wishes were the case with Isabel.

Another contrast between American and European conventions is the way individuals obtain wealth as well as what they do with it. Lord Warburton is born into his property and title, as his predecessors had been. He was not elected to office, as leaders in America are; rather, his office is hereditary. Although he feels the injustice of his position, he certainly doesn't give up the wealth he enjoys. Mr. Touchett, on the other hand, earned his money through a career of his choice. His efforts, talent, and intelligence have secured his position and the ability to leave his wealth to whomever he chooses. Lord Warburton's property and title must be passed to an heir.

American innocence and naïveté throw into relief European cynicism and corruption. This is most clearly evident in Isabel's manipulation by Madame Merle and Osmond. Isabel, despite a warning from Mrs. Touchett, believes her money has nothing to do with Osmond's desire to marry her. She is oblivious to any connection her marriage might have to Madame Merle, again despite Mrs. Touchett suggesting that Madame Merle is involved. As Ralph observes, Isabel has created an idea of Osmond that she loves, no matter how little it resembles the man himself. Osmond cynically remarks that Isabel has too many ideas but that they don't bother him because they will have to be sacrificed anyway. Henrietta is right to worry that Osmond will corrupt Isabel's character. By the time she realizes her husband actually hates her and that her friend Madame Merle tricked her out of her freedom and fortune, Isabel has lost her innocence irretrievably.


Henry James depicts several types of control in the novel. One is the covert, Machiavellian, manipulating use of other people orchestrated by Osmond and Madame Merle. Madame Merle states to Osmond that she knows what she can do with people. Osmond all too easily charms Isabel into falling in love with him. He skillfully uses her desire for self-determination to twist her friends' disapproval of the match into confirmation that she is marrying him out of a desire to please only herself. Madame Merle tells Isabel that Osmond has very discerning taste and only deigns to exert himself for those he deems worthy, knowing Isabel will be flattered when he does so for her.

Another type of control is the exercise of overt patriarchal power on the part of Osmond over his daughter and wife. Osmond has raised Pansy to believe that her chief duty is to please him. He has been so successful in this aim that she willingly gives up her lover, Rosier, to avoid displeasing Osmond. She stays in the prison-like cell of the convent rather than escape with her stepmother because she will not disobey him. Osmond controls Isabel, to an extent, as well. Although she hates the idea of separating Pansy from Rosier and using her power over Warburton, she feels compelled to do what Osmond wants in order to be a good wife. She is brave enough to run away to see Ralph one last time, but Osmond's power over her seems to overcome her will to save herself: she goes back to him despite an offer of help from Caspar.

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