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Isabel Archer’s Downfall In Henry James’ The Portrait Of A Lady Essay, Research Paper

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,…to 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 error of judgment concerning Osmond’s character- that though she had married in

freedom, she had not married freedom- all her strength and sense of dignity come to her, as the

cherished ideal of freedom as opposed to her husband’s strict conformity to standard traditions.

“Osmond was fond of the old, the consecrated, the transmitted; so was she, but she pretended to

do what she chose with it” (James 558). The belief that she is free, has always been, and still is,

in spite of the rigid system that Osmond wants to force on her. She made a mistake, she knows,

in marrying Osmond; but she believes she had been free to make it.

A certain point comes in the novel, where everything changes for Isabel, and she realizes

that she must make an important decision regarding her search for freedom. However, it does

not progress well for Isabel after this point.

Isabel sat there looking up at her, without rising; her face almost a prayer to be

enlightened. But the light of this woman’s eyes seemed only a darkness. “O

misery!” she murmured at last; and she fell back, covering her face with her

hands. It had come over her like a high surging wave that Mrs. Touchett was

right. Madame Merle had married her. Before she uncovered her face again that

lady had left the room (James 551).

This is a crucial scene in the whole novel, particularly important for the understanding of Isabel’s

sense of freedom, and her subsequent attempts to preserve it. Isabel Osmond- trapped by the

premeditated schemes of her husband and of Madame Merle- begins to realize how far away she

is now from Isabel Archer, the independent young woman at the beginning of the novel, a

symbol in herself of unlimited freedom in her undeveloped potentialities. She realizes that she

wishes to fight to get that person back. As Isabel works at redeeming her lost sense of freedom,

she loses sight of her priorities, and gradually begins her destruction.

Isabel’s discoveries about her freedom or lack of freedom, as well as her final stubborn

attempt to mend the broken image of her illusion of self-control, can also be read as an unspoken

comment on the shifting values of late nineteenth century, such as individualism and individual

freedom, integrity and dignity of mind, and inner purity. James is saying that although these

human virtues are desirable, one should watch at what cost they are attained. Human sense of

self and happiness are just as important as the visible external distinctions. “Her notion of

human freedom, dignity, and responsibility, as well as her ideal of marriage and her conception

of a woman’s place in society, inexorably trace of her, paradoxically, her freely chosen path”

(Santos 309). Ironically, what Isabel considers to be genuine free will can be interpreted as

controlled forces, as well. Consequently, Isabel Archer returns to Rome and to her husband,

Osmond, at the end of the novel because she is desperately trying to preserve a lost ideal of

individual freedom as the basis for a woman’s social identity.

Eventually, Isabel realizes that the most important decision of her life, her marriage, had

been determined, not by her own free choice, but by someone else’s intentional planning, and she

is distraught. She sees herself as a mere instrument, a useful tool in other people’s hands, a mere

puppet. Once again, Isabel does not know what to do. The centering of her behavior for the last

couple of years on her freedom, the stabilizing force in her life when she had none, is what got

her in this predicament. Finally, Isabel comes up with a solution, still not changing what she had

previously thought of as the suitable way to make her life decisions. Her following behavior

indicates that she loves individual freedom more than she loves self-righteousness. According to

Isabel, by returning to Rome and to her heartless husband in the end, she is sanctioning her first

act, turning it into a free act. “Isabel’s final decision to go back to her husband, in enfranchising

her first choice, endows her with the responsibility one demands of all free human beings”

(Santos 310). This means that she thinks that if she does not go back on her actions in the past,

including marrying Gilbert Osmond, then it will be like proving that it was a knowledgeable act

in the first place, something she did out of her own free will. Isabel needs this type of

reassurement because it reflects her solid freedom that she had been emphasizing right from the

beginning. Without it, she would be lost and have lead a meaningless life. To be free is to be

master of one’s destiny. Isabel Archer thinks that she achieves this by this act of returning to her

unloving husband; but in reality, she is trapped and just beginning her fall.

When in the end Isabel rejects Caspar Goodwood’s proposal of marriage for the last time,

she is above all aware that Caspar’s idea of freedom contradicts her own, that it would nullify her

very conception of herself. For Goodwood, freedom means “that a woman deliberately made to

suffer is justified in anything in life” (James 626); for Isabel, freedom means that a woman that

has made herself responsible for her own suffering has only one “very straight path” to follow,

the wide, but painful, path of genuineness to one’s self (James 628). Goodwood’s view of

freedom is much more flexible than Isabel’s. The heroine is too set in her ways. This causes her

inability to be able to adapt to the changes in her situations that require different quick and

logical thinking. Isabel Archer is unfit to make such significant decisions because she does not

know how to follow her heart, not her head and sense of freedom.

Two forceful motives have been keeping Isabel faithful to the sacred ideal of her

marriage. First, she had been free when she had decided to marry Gilbert Osmond, and therefore

she feels she must accept the consequences of her acts, however painful: “one must accept one’s

deeds. I married him before all the world; I was perfectly free; it was impossible to do anything

more deliberate” (James 521). Isabel feels that she cannot go back on that promise now without

breaking her code of honoring her freedom. Secondly, Isabel’s pride determines her

unwillingness to admit that she has made a mistake. She knows that she has made a mistake, but

she cannot admit to it externally: “I don’t think that’s decent. I’d much rather die” (James 521). If

she would have done that, she would not be free because she would always have that one

mistake that she owes someone binding her to change. Isabel’s attitude is a result of her sense of

freedom; she is still free to choose the face she wants to show, and she ultimately chooses not to

acknowledge publicly such a great error of perception on her part concerning Osmond.

The question is raised if Isabel’s need for her independence will not lead to the loss of her

life. “Isabel even wonders at one point, with a twinge of fear, if her insistence on her freedom

may not lead to some desert place of pride and isolation” (Long 117). Certainly she is

vulnerable, since pride and isolation are part of her character. This is what occurs at length

when Isabel returns to her husband, Osmond. Moreover, Osmond very strikingly represents

pride and isolation, and in him one has a morbid reflection of Isabel. “A long life yet lies ahead

of her, and it is certain to be one in which there will be suffering” (Long 126). Being with

Osmond definitely means a life of isolation, suffering, and unhappiness for her. “Isabel

undertakes to experience her consequent suffering alone, unaided by the support of friends or by

the authority of social forms” (O’Neill 47). Loneliness will make the suffering even worse for

Isabel. In conclusion, it is this decision that is her final undoing. Ironically, it was made with

the intention of being most free, yet, obviously it did not turn out to be as positive as was hoped.

“The whole second half of the novel is a richly detailed treatment of the slavery into which

Isabel has fallen, and account of suffering endured by a woman of Isabel’s type reduced to

conventional marriage” (O’Neill 26). A slightly unexpected turn from the start of the novel,

Isabel was not expecting to actually conform with convention as she was striving for freedom.

Because Isabel chooses to stay with Osmond, she will be discontented, destroying her initial free

spirit, yet she can no longer do nothing about it.

In The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer ends all possibility of leading a healthy life

through her search for personal freedom. Through Henry James’ implied commentary, it is clear

that however perfect the American ideal of freedom may sound, it can be undesirable, as well.

Isabel Archer allowed this fault to overcome her whole person. It is the logic aspiration for

freedom “that is Isabel’s tragic flaw which leads to her downfall in a society of whose

ruthlessness she had no comprehension” (Cargill 98). Even though it is not a negative quality

alone, under her circumstances it proved disastrous. Ultimately, it is the significant title of The

Portrait of a Lady that colorfully depicts everything. The portrait of the lady, Isabel, is not meant

to be looked upon with sophisticated empathy. “Isabel is not trapped within a frame” (Winner

143). Instead, she is so real and vivid that she becomes alive. Every person should think of their

own life like this: look outside the picture frame because a real world exists that is waiting to

provide lessons and experiences for individuals to learn and better themselves.

Cargill, Oscar. The Novels of Henry James. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961.

James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Lee, Brian. The Novels of Henry James. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978.

Long, Robert Emmet. Henry James: The Early Novels. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.

O’Neill, John P. Workable Design. Port Washington, NY: National University Publications,


Santos Sousa de, Maria Irene Ramalho. Henry James. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea

House Publishers, 1987.

Sharma, Jagdish Narain. The International Fiction of Henry James. Delhi: The Macmillan

Company of India Limited, 1979.

Sicker, Philip. Love and the Quest for Identity in the Fiction of Henry James. Princeton, NJ:

Princeton University Press, 1980.

Winner, Viola. Henry James and the Visual Arts. Charlottesville: The University Press of

Virginia, 1970.

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