When I approach a work written by Henry James, I know that I’m going to be reading something that’s very good and well written… something I’ll end up enjoying. But when it comes to writing about one of his stories, trying to organize all of those dense themes coherently on paper, that’s another matter entirely. The Portrait of a Lady
is certainly one of his masterpieces, providing the reader with a brief study of those formative years for Isabel Archer. She’s the epitome of 19th Century American youth—innocent and impressionable, thrust into the overwhelming social conventions that have been instilled as a part of European society for centuries. For Isabel, contact with this society and meeting fellow compatriots that have already succumbed to these conventions eventually leads to a slow asphyxiation of her own desires and beliefs. It forces her to forego her fears of intimacy and independence, and take up tradition. Though doing so opens up even more hardships, which finally culminate with Isabel’s complete disillusionment and forlorn acceptance of her current situation. It’s certainly a depressing tale and one that doesn’t really have a good satisfying conclusion.
However with James, the conclusion isn’t necessarily important; it’s the journey… the mystery and recognizing how well the deception is played out and how it affects the main characters in different ways. And even though I already knew how the story would conclude before reading, the journey James takes us on… all of those psychological twists, those observations of character and place—how all of these subtle details come together makes the book a satisfying read.
An excellent piece of fiction, though I must say I do prefer The Spoils of Poynton and its somewhat sensational and ironic ending.