The Portrait of a Lady

Rating: 0

Henry James

The preface of my edition of this book bases its evaluation of the book on Henry James's statement in his essay "The Art of Fiction", that "The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel, without incurring the charge of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting." Judged on this basis, I think that The Portrait of a Lady is predominantly a success. It is the story of a young American lady living in the late 1800s who is given an opportunity to travel throughout Europe with her aunt and make whatever she is going to out of her life. This lady (Isabel) is described as both attractive and intelligent. The central question, from early on, is whether this life in going to include marrying or not, and if it does, who she will marry. Isabel states at the outset that she feels she's meant to do something significant in her life and doesn't want to marry if it is going to hold her back from meeting her potential. Given the presuppositions of the story, the plot sets Isabel in a chain of situations where she has to balance the expectations of society, her assumptions about what her life would look like, and the other temptations she is faced with. As the story goes on, she also accumulates obligations to others that she needs to decide whether to honor or not, particularly as they seem to conflict. At the heart, this is a story about making life choices without being able to know what the choices will really bring, and how to live with the outcome of those decisions.

The problem that I had with this book was trying to accept its presuppositions. We were told that Isabel was intelligent, and in fact was quite exceptional. However, I don't think that we were shown that. We didn't see Isabel do anything particularly intelligent and she seemed to act in a way calculated to seem clever rather than really being clever. For example, she seemed to pride herself on not appreciating things that other people did, but instead enjoying things that were more "simple". She often struck me as affected. I expected, during the first half of the book, that eventually Isabel would be put in her place and learn that she wasn't exceptional. I think I would have enjoyed the book more if I had accepted from the start that she was exceptional and let the story proceed from there.

I was also surprised to learn, reading the introduction after I finished the book, that the book was supposed to have strong comedic elements, particularly when it came to the treatment of Isabel's friend Henrietta. Henrietta was another American young lady who was employed as a journalist and traveled around the country and the world observing and sending back letters to her newspaper about what she saw, usually with the purpose of demonstrating the strength and superiority of the United States over the rest of the world. I didn't find her humorous, and I think that I prefer taking her character seriously, rather than being somewhat exaggerated. Henrietta leads the life that she wants without concern for societies expectations and, by doing this, leads what seems to be a full and happy life. She isn't as popular as Isabel, but the friends she manages to make think very highly of her. I see her role in the book to be a counterpoint to the primary portrait being painted of Isabel.

Overall, I rate this book a 0 - I enjoyed reading it because I was curious what was going to happen to Isabel, but I was able to put it down for long periods of time, and after having finished it I still don't feel like I understand Isabel and why she did things. None of the characters were compelling to me; I didn't understand why they acted the way I did and while I had been curious about their actions, I didn't really care about them. I think most of my interest was in trying to learn who these people were, and I didn't have that by the end of the book. James's writing is beautiful, but I didn't think it was put to good use in this book.


Review written November 1999.


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