The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James

Of course, finishing this book now, as opposed to my undergrad days when I should have read this, is rather embarrassing, but all I can say is: Wow! This novel ranks as one of my all-time favorites!
About one-third of the way into the novel, I was sucked into it and literally could not put it down. I imagine I will reread and the subsequent readings will only deepen and broaden my understanding of the novel.
I have much to say and research about Portrait, but one completely uninformed observation I wanted to comment on is the character development of Isabel Archer.
In the beginning third of the novel or so, the reader learns about Isabel through comments by the omnisicent narrator or through the other characters (usually dialogue. James, I noticed, likes to reveal characters by having other characters talk about them. A neat trick.). I was a little put off by this, because I was being told about Isabel rather than seeing her in action.
As I read on, I realized that James was allowing me to develop my own ideas about Isabel through these revelations. When it came time for Isabel to act on her own, the impact was powerful: All of the insights I took on as a reader came to fore and added depth and poignancy to the action.
At least, that was my impression.
I'd like to hear about this from others who have read this novel or James.


bhadd said...

The villainness, O villainness! Why not leave? Why would Isabel refuse to depart?

The Hood Company

Yogamum said...

That is truly one of the brilliant things about James...how he reveals character from the outside. I think he felt himself very much an observer rather than an actor, so that perspective came naturally to him.

You might read "The Master" by Colm Toibin. It's a fictionalized biography of James. I really enjoyed it.

Bobby D. said...

It has been awhile since I read this one but this one and the Golden Bowl both sucked me in completely and both had surprising moments.

Colm Toibin is a wonderful wonderful writer. I will have to check his bio of James. In his book "Love in a Dark Time" Toibin mentions HJ, (re: Oscar Wilde)

LK said...

Bhadd, I am just guessing here, not having read any critical texts or engaged in discussion, but I think that Isabel stayed with Osmond because of her character; that is, she felt it was the moral choice. It is difficult nowadays sometimes to relate to the moral weight that were given to the social institutions in James's day.

Thanks, Yogamum and DCB!

Tai said...

I think you've got it exactly right, LK. James circles and circles his characters, he slowly unpeels and reveals, taking his time. Portrait is very much a novel of escalating perception: both the reader's and Isabel's.

Anonymous said...

Oooohhhh. I really want to read this now.

litlove said...

I've only ever read James's short fiction - Washington Square and The Aspern Papers, and I loved both of those. I've never tackled anything longer, but you're making me think I should!

Rebecca H. said...

James is one of my most favorite authors ever (I second the recommendation of Toibin's The Master, by the way), and I enjoyed Portrait quite a lot. James is such a master of technique, isn't he?

LK said...

MUST GET THE MASTER. Okay, it's on my list!

I really have gotten bitten by the James bug, that's for sure. Eager to read more, feeling very grateful for having "found" him.

Now, onto Proust!

Anonymous said...

I've only read a few James short stories and Turn of the Screw, never a novel. You make me want to read this one right now!

Anonymous said...

Hey guys,
I just finished reading the book and wanted to know, i mean, i know Isabel returns to Rome, but the ending is sooo vague!!! Does she return to split with Osmond and live her life because she feels 'free' or is it because she wants to keep the love in her life, that of Pansy??? it's a brilliant book but i'm just wondering what everyone else thought Isabel does when she gets back because i don't think she neccessarily returns to and for Osmond... what'd you think???