Isabel’s innocence is apparent all the more when one sees it in sharp contrast with the ambition of Madame Merle and, to a lesser extent, Osmond. He is depicted as too indolent to be as cunning as her, although he is willing to follow her schemes for the future. Although this work is mainly concerned with the portrayal of character rather than plot, Madame Merle’s subterfuge lends it an element of intrigue.
Madame Merle is constructed as the epitome of ambition as she gives her life over to the schemes that will further the standing of her, Osmond and Pansy. Through this portrayal, it is possible to see a moral criticism at play as she is pitied by Isabel once she discovers she is Pansy’s mother.
The portrait of Isabel changes from that of an independent young woman to a lady who wears a mask to conceal her emotions. When she first appears in the novel, she asks numerous questions and has a thirst for knowledge and experience. When she becomes a lady, she succumbs to the patriarchal order and learns to be the feminine woman that should not have ideas. Her suitor, Osmond, despises the independence she used to dream of and criticizes her for having ideas. These ideas and interest in life (her ‘originality’) are quashed in marriage as he expects her to be an object of beauty rather than an animate, independent being.
This is set up as the antithesis of independence for women especially when one looks to the central character, Isabel. The only successful marriage, in terms of longevity and respect, is between her aunt and uncle (the Touchetts) and this appears to be because her aunt has lived in Florence rather than England. Because of this treatment, it is tempting to see the novel as offering a feminist critique of marriage as it represents a form of imprisonment if the husband chooses to wield his sanctioned power.
Marriage is compared to a cage and a steel trap and Ralph wants Isabel to share his inheritance so that she will never have to marry for money. He mistakenly believes this share will allow her to have freedom, when it instead became a reason for Madame Merle to find her an attractive suitor for Osmond.
While the state of being married is often described in negative terms, it is worth noting that Isabel takes the vow of marriage to be a ‘sacred act’. When regarded as such, it becomes the cage Ralph feared as it is impossible to escape from her unhappiness. She is depicted as seeing this doom as her destiny, as though fate may not be challenged.
The New World and the Old World
The Portrait of a Lady draws on the perennial Jamesian theme of Americans living in Europe. Isabel is a useful cipher for portraying the young provincial American women who comes to Europe and learns about the traditions that end up limiting her.
The contrast between the new and old is not simplified, though, as Osmond is American but has learned to aspire and overtake the traditions that he sees in European life. He favors the old over the new to the point that he prefers to immure his daughter in a convent than risk her marrying below his ambition. His attempt to objectify Isabel further demonstrates his aim to limit rather than explore.
The Portrait of a Lady: Theme Analysis