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Portrait Of A Lady

Updated November 1, 2018

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Portrait Of A Lady essay

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Portrait Of A Lady It is an unquestionable fact of life that human nature is flawed.

Human beings have a variety of weaknesses that may differ from one person to the next. How one deals with this ultimately determines whether it will or will not destroy the person. The faults that humans possess stem from an open field of possibilities that they are able to choose from as they build their own character. However, as much as individual free will is desirable, as all other parts of the natural world, it can include negative aspects, as well. Probably, the most difficult element is being able to make good choices, keeping in mind what Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Freedom is not worth having if it does not connote freedom to err.” Once a state of freedom is attained, all of its sides are encompassed.

This essential human cycle of freedom has progressed along with the changing times, views, and values in society. It is depicted by many authors in countless novels. Henry James’ perception accurately describes the shifts that occurred in society during the late nineteenth century. He uses colorful characters in his writings to express his opinions on actual revolutionary outlooks of the time and to comment on human nature.

The Portrait of a Lady is an example of his view on freedom. The quest for personal freedom destroys Isabel Archer in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. Isabel Archer is introduced instantly, in the novel, as a woman with strong and uncompromising convictions. The first glimpse of Isabel shows that she is “quite independent” (James 27). This early description sets expectations for her character.

When Isabel herself appears on the lawn of Gardencourt, where she is met by the family she has never known, she strikes Ralph as having “a great deal of confidence, both in herself and in others” (James 31). Isabel’s charisma could be felt by people that were strangers to her. Her attitude and stubborn personality shine through and can be visible in everything she does. A little later at Gardencourt, Isabel is appalled at the very idea of being considered “a candidate for adoption” after her aunt takes her away from her home where she had no parents: “I’m very fond of my liberty,” she says (James 35). Clearly, Isabel is not afraid to let others know how she feels, no matter how disagreeable her views may be. One such subject is liberty, which means to know everything, including all the possibilities ahead in order to choose freely, confidently, responsibly; as when she tells her aunt that she always likes to know the things one shouldn’t do, “so as to choose” (James 86).

Such frank language is what makes Isabel who she is, a person who takes risks, often thoughtlessly. Unsurprisingly, Isabel reveals she is afraid of becoming “a mere sheep in the flock” because she wants to be the sole free master of her own fate (James 182-183). In other words, Isabel declines to be anybody’s puppet. Choosing the direction that her life heads is only her decision, even when she cannot make that choice skillfully.

Although Isabel cherishes it, her independence is not necessarily always best for her. With the passing of time at Gardencourt, Isabel Archer reveals more of her headstrong qualities. Her uncle’s passing allows her to reveal this. When Isabel’s uncle dies, he gives the humble, yet sharp, girl a large amount of money which changes her life. Isabel’s newly acquired fortune brings her an enlarged freedom, however problematic.

Consequently, Isabel believes that she is now freer than ever before. However, she is scared of the burden of tremendous responsibility involved in complete, unquestionable freedom. She is free- she thinks- to choose her own fate. And so she believes she does when she fulfills her “one ambition- to be free to follow out a good feeling” (James 374).

The heroine follows this principle of freedom throughout the rest of the novel. Constant anxiety surrounds Isabel about the use she would ever make of her freedom, which she never doubts or questions. By accepting the consequences her free acts, Isabel is satisfied by doing herself the justice of always being considerate of herself. “She has chosen with the sense that the ordinary benefits of life are not likely to satisfy her, and her major acts [will be] refusals to accept the ordinary” (O’Neill 39).

Keeping this in mind, Isabel proceeds throughout the novel with this single ideal. Still, when Isabel becomes really free to make a decision on her own, she is afraid. Isabel is right to be afraid, for her desire for total freedom will eventually have to be translated to her destruction. But, “in the course of the novel..she is affronting her destiny rather than succumbing to it” (Winner 143). It is an ongoing battle for her to stay in control. How Isabel affronts her destiny is what finally determines how she will handle freedom and her own life, in general.

Isabel believes herself completely free to choose to do against what appears most proper and expected of her. An example of this is quickly evident when she receives a marriage proposal from Lord Warburton, where she would have “ease and comfort” (Lee 37). However, Isabel has higher ideals than she thinks can be realized by a life with Lord Warburton. Her higher ideals are the liberal ideals of an individual freedom, whereas Lord Warburton, even in spite of himself, has to offer only the system her instincts tells her to resist. Lord Warburton’s strength and power would deny Isabel the exercise of freedom. It is clear right from the beginning of the novel that Isabel Archer dreads the kind of definition implied in a commitment to what Lord Warburton represents, and that is why she cannot “think of [his] various homes as the settled seat of [her] residence” (James 138).

She needs something less stable and dominating. The heroine knows she will have to remain completely disengaged to pursue the “exploration of life” that her imagination dreams of (James 130). Restraining herself through marriage will not allow her to accomplish what she wants. Aspiring to this is difficult since many sacrifices will have to be made for Isabel to finally achieve it, some that may have questionable worthiness in the end. Soon, it becomes apparent that Isabel Archer is mainly concerned with the difficult problem of marriage. The main issue in the first part of the book seems to be how Isabel will fit in the events that surround her, or rather, how she will attain the important goal of the appropriate status in a surrounding society by means of a suitable marriage.

“For in this society, be nobody’s wife is to be lost” (Santos 304). During this time in history, women could rarely stand alone and independent and still be admired. Little by little, it becomes evident that the interesting aspect of Isabel’s character is not how she will eventually fit in the surrounding events, but rather if and how the events fit her. Since in the end, the events in the novel do not fit the heroine at all, she will rather have to re-invent her freedom in order to force herself to fit them.

Unfortunately, this does not mean that it was the right decision to make. “While total freedom offers an infinite range of potential experiences, the moment one commits oneself to any particular experiences, the moment one commits oneself to any particular life- style or, in love, to any single individual, one forfeits one’s freedom” (Sicker 56). Therefore, either way, Isabel is building up for a terrible loss. Yet, Isabel chooses to not engage herself in unimportant distractions, instead always stays focused on one: freedom. In the end, Isabel Archer decides to marry Gilbert Osmond, the man who presents himself to her seemingly without a system, to maintain her freedom. When justifying her marital decision to Ralph, Isabel says, “He [Osmond] wants me to know everything; that is what I like him for” (James 370).

Isabel initially enjoys the fact that Osmond treats her with much respect and holds in contempt “the usual values in life such as the pursuit of wealth, success, fame, and subservience to social opinion” (Sharma 18). Basically, it turns out, the marriage is a self- serving relationship where both sides benefit. Later on, still failing to see the intricate web of relationships in front of her eyes, and resolutely ignoring Ralph’s socializing warning that “one ought to feel one’s relation to things- to others,” she refuses to see Osmond but in the light of noble individuality and independence she bestows on him: “He knows everything, he understands everything, he has the kindest, gentlest, highest spirit” (James 374). The heroine seeks out Osmond’s best and even turns his flaws into something positive in one way or another.

Thus, as she had rejected the social commitment implicit in Lord Warburton’s proposal, she now accepts the offer that seems to her most uncommitted socially and that she believes to be the total fulfillment of the freedom she needs to expand her imagination limitlessly: “His being so independent, so individual, is what I most see in him” (James 370). All of Osmond’s faults and shortcomings are not perceptible to her. She is so blindly concentrating on her objective, her freedom, that Isabel cannot see anything else clearly. Isabel believes, then, that her marriage to Osmond opens up for her the broad road towards the complete fulfillment of her freedom. “Out of that late Nineteenth century, pre-war idealism that she, too, embodies, Isabel cherishes the kind of individual freedom (disengagement, separateness, independence) which she believes to be the essence of human emotion” (Santos 303).

Her actions reveal her keeping with the views of the changing times regarding freedom. So, in the freedom as she thinks, she chooses to marry the man, that had seemed to her most uncommitted, most unconcerned, most disinterested, most independent, most free, Osmond. Thus, Isabel will truly find herself, as a woman, in her marriage, which no less than the symbolic reconciliation of her notion of freedom with society’s (and her own) as yet unquestioned definition of woman as somebody’s wife. In marrying Osmond, Isabel Archer had wanted to share her liberty with a freer person, which she hoped to be the fulfillment of her own.

She needed an equal in her thoughts and ideals. Her marriage was the symbol of her total freedom. When Isabel becomes gradually aware of her err …

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Portrait Of A Lady. (2018, Dec 05). Retrieved from