Portrait of a Lady: Essay Q&A
1. Describe the Touchett family and their relationship with England.
The first chapter of The Portrait of a Lady begins in the grounds of Gardencourt and this is described as an English country house with a history of its own. The owner, Mr Daniel Touchett, has come to love it and although he is originally from the United States, he has lived in England for 30 years now. His son, Ralph, was taught in the United States, but has also had a stereotypically English education at Oxford.
Although, the father and son have found a niche there and regard Gardencourt as home, Lydia Touchett comes for only visits. She prefers Florence to England and the decision to live away from her family characterizes her as independent, if not aloof, as well as contemptuous of the English lifestyle.
2. Examine the portrayal of the Old and New World.
As a young woman sitting in Albany before the arrival of her aunt, Isabel Archer is described as ‘original’ and we are told of her thirst for knowledge. She is somewhat naive, but also ‘independent’ in her thinking and enjoys questioning others. Her friend Henrietta Stackpole is also described as independent and is thought not to care a straw for what men think of her.
When Isabel comes to Europe, she learns about the closer adherence to propriety and is expected, for example, to have escorts while on her travels. This is just one example of how traditions are seen to be more embedded in the culture of the Old World and it is of interest that the American-born Gilbert Osmond adheres to these the most closely. It may be argued that he embodies the worst traits of the European and has adopted these as a means to feel superior to others.
3. Consider the role of art and art appreciation.
From the title onwards, the narrative makes numerous passing allusions to art and the appreciation of it. When Isabel first visits Gardencourt, for example, she asks Ralph to show her the paintings in the gallery and he is impressed with her natural taste. She also talks to Lord Warburton in Rome in front of the Dying Gladiator, and this serves to emphasize with irony how his desire to marry her is without hope.
There is also a more sinister aspect to the appreciation of art in the construction of the character of Osmond. It is as though he acts as a warning against having the type of ‘fine’ mind that prefers the inanimate object over humanity. It is a chilling moment when Isabel realizes that he wants her to have no opinions and wishes her to be simply a beautiful object. 4. To what extent is this novel sympathetic to the position of women in a patriarchal society?
Through the depiction of Isabel and her disastrous, confining marriage to Osmond, the novel is seen to favor the independence of women. Ralph persuades his father to give her half of his share of the inheritance, as he wants to see her soar and sail and not be obliged to marry for money. However, the great tragedy of the novel is brought about when Isabel unconsciously thinks of this as a burden and feels obliged to share it with a man who has none namely Osmond.
Because of the often ironic tone, the sympathy towards oppressed women is made less clear when Henrietta is used as a mouthpiece for the independent woman. Her brashness in the earlier parts of the novel tends to undermine the idea that this may be read as only a feminist work. Her characterization, therefore, makes this more complex.
5. Analyze the style of this work.
If one were to recount what happens in The Portrait of a Lady, a short summary of Isabel’s journey to England, her marriage and then her return to England would mostly suffice. There is very little action, then, in the standard sense, as the narrative mainly focuses on the perspective of characters of both themselves and others. This has the effect of concentrating the narrative and the reader’s interpretation on the interaction between characters and the suggested psychology of its main protagonists. This is also a novel concerned with ideas, such as the fate of the independent woman and the clash and convergence between the Old and New Worlds and James takes time in the extrapolation of these concepts. Irony seeps through into the dialogue and characterization as the portrait of a lady, rather than ‘the’ lady, unfolds.
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