The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady

Synopsis

When Isabel Archer, a young American with looks, wit, and imagination, arrives in Europe, she sees the world as "a place of brightness," full of possibility. Rejecting suitors who offer her wealth and devotion, she follows her own path and finds it leads to a dark and constricted future. The Portrait of a Lady is the masterpiece of James's middle period, and Isabel is his most engaging central character. This edition provides a new introduction and notes, and includes Henry James's own Preface.

Excerpt

The Portrait of a Lady announces itself as a work of art. The title suggests something inward, perhaps mannered, even complicit with a classbound society. A portrait depicts someone---perhaps just the face, or head and shoulders--sitting, posed, both for the painter and his audience: perhaps the patron, or those with privileged access to the view. So the phrase creates a sense of stasis, of surface, and elaborate framing. The personal is transformed into something else: a commodity. Beauty co-operates with art at the behest of wealth: aesthetic and financial values corroborating a rigid hierarchy which is endorsed by the artist for the public gaze. And, indeed, the values of art, the lures of both aestheticism and collecting, and their connections with the social construction of femininity, the shaping of a girl into a lady, are amongst the strongest and darkest themes of The Portrait of a Lady. The novel does not just depict but explores the central figure of Isabel Archer, showing, not telling, how she comes to a full sense of her own being, amidst forces which threaten to distort, exploit, or constrain her.

For this work of art is more than ornament. Behind its surfaces, within the frame, caught up in its lines of perspective, the picture proposes a dramatic scene, where spectators are enticed into perception of the unseen--motives and restraints--while the figures portrayed move into vortices of desire, projection, and interpretation. This 'portrait' is not a mere, memorial, but work in progress, coming into being as we read. Art here is at work, hard work, for James found it exciting 'to see deep difficulty braved' (12). Accordingly, he creates in this great novel, the climax of his early career, anticipating his later and most demanding fiction, a situation which is full of dangers yet meets difficulties as a challenge.

James harks back to the simplicities of Romance as he adopts the Cinderella story for his basic fable, and echoes the Pygmalion legend. The neglected child rescued by the love of a Prince; the sculptor who makes a statue so beautiful that he . . .

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