“The Portrait of a Lady”-Who the heck is Isabel Archer?

“The Portrait of a Lady”-Who the heck is Isabel Archer?

Sorry for the gap in posts. This last week I moved! And now have a wonderful house full of lovely friends. Seven of them being the 4 legged kind. Correction: 6 of them being the four legged kind, as one of them is a 3 legged dragon! Anyway, to get back to our last post about “The Portrait of a Lady,” previously I discussed a general overview of “The Portrait of a Lady,” but today I want to take a detailed look at Isabel Archer. Do we really admire her as an example of a lady? Does she represent a feminist or is she an anti-feminist? Why can’t she marry Lord Warburton? I mean he’s basically Mr. Darcy. And why? Why, why, whyyyyyyy did she go back to Gilbert Osmond?!!!!!

Well, let’s dive right in. In the beginning of the novel, Isabel is a strong independent young woman. She refuses all suitors in order to commit to her dreams and travel the world. She embraces her theories and ideas and defends them against her family and friends. All of these things I believe are admirable traits. Independence and free-thinking are markers of a woman who understands her worth and that she has more to offer and experience in life than just being married off. In this manner I would agree that Isabel is a champion among heroines, but the fact is that Isabel gives up all of her admirable identity in order to be with a man, which is the complete opposite of where she started.

This is not how a relationship should be. A good husband values and respects the identity of his wife. No one is perfect, but a good relationship helps both parties to grow in the areas where they struggle. This is not what we see happening with Isabel and Gilbert. Gilbert plain out says that he wants to erase all of Isabel’s former ideas and replace them with his own. He no longer wants her to be Isabel he wants her to be a version of himself. I have all sorts of issues with Gilbert Osmond, but he’s the villain so you’re supposed to have issues with him. He’s not supposed to make you feel warm and fuzzy. However, my even bigger struggle is with Isabel, who is supposed to be the heroine, and what Henry James seems to be implying through her decision to remain with Gilbert.

James uses Isabel as a representation of the new ideas and Gilbert as a representation of the old ideas. When Isabel goes back to Gilbert Osmond, James seems to imply that the old ways will always win out over the more progressive ideas. But this is preposterous! Our very world is built on a system of change. Seasons change, babies mature into adults, seeds grow into food, and all of these processes are based on a system where change is necessary in order to achieve a purpose. Stagnation results in death. Without the coming of spring the sleeping ground will never be able to yield food. If children never grew up they could never be at a place to take care of themselves. If seeds never matured then we would never have enough food. Change is necessary. In the same way, as individuals we must accept change in order to grow as people. So honestly, I don’t understand how she could have gone back to Gilbert after again attaining her freedom. It was wildly disappointing.

Now the really important question that I just need to rant about for a few minutes. Why couldn’t she marry Lord Warburton? I mean I get if you don’t love him and all, but couldn’t you grow to love the guy? He wasn’t anything like the evil jerk you ended up with. Why choose misery and suffering over comfort and adoration?

I think this reveals something very important about Isabel’s character. She would rather suffer in order to prove a point than accept the help of a man she deems as less worthy. Pride. It’s Isabel’s downfall. She believes her ideas are correct, but as she has never had to put them to the test she finds that she has no way to really back them up. So she willingly suffers in order to maintain her level of pride. Pride is not an admirable quality. It assumes that you are better than those around you, and prevents you from being able to ask for help. Gilbert Osmond is also consumed with pride, but rather than new and cutting-edge ideas, Osmond’s pride is based in his belief in the old traditions. Together these two lovers destroy what little happiness they could have had in order to maintain something as worthless as pride.

Poor Lord Warburton. I would take you in a heart-beat my darling! For your sweet British accent, your lovely estate, your kind sisters, and your eternal admiration, but sadly Isabel does not see those things as beneficial to her and she turns down one of the best characters in the book.

Basically, I really didn’t like this novel. It seems to celebrate the fact that Isabel goes back to her abusive husband and to remove the value from women having ideas and dreams. The novel rejects any of the characters with admirable qualities, such as Isabel’s aunt, her cousin Ralph and her good friend Henrietta all as being stuffy or below her. The novel elevates Gilbert Osmond when in reality he is a tyrant. And although critics seem to acclaim Henry James as a renowned writer, I did not walk away with that impression at all.

So instead of reader this depressing expression sexism in literature, go eat chocolate and binge watch “Merlin.”


James, H. (1996). The Portrait of a lady. New York: Barnes & Noble Books.

Photo by Jean

Link to photo license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

2 thoughts on ““The Portrait of a Lady”-Who the heck is Isabel Archer?”

  • Hi Brianna! I wanted to welcome you to The Classics Club, but I couldn’t figure out how to comment on that page, so I popped over here. I LOVE your interrogation of James’s portrayal of Archer. When I read Portrait, I completely LOVED it. I sensed a bit of skepticism from James, but if this makes any sense — I almost didn’t care what James had to say about Archer’s story, because Archer seemed to burst from the page. {Which is my way of saying he’s so good a writer he many now step aside thanks.} I couldn’t tell if he was making a feminist or anti-feminist point because the ending is so ambiguous. We don’t actually know that she goes back. We don’t know what she does. He never tells us. So that’s why I love this one: I decided she doesn’t go back, and pretty much LOVED her for it. I applaud your skepticism because {I feel} it could really be read either way, and if she DOES go back, that’s a completely different story. I LOVE that James doesn’t tell us.

    Anyway, I actually stopped in about your club list. I CANNOT WAIT FOR YOU TO READ THE HOUSE OF MIRTH. I also want to read Middlemarch. And A Christmas Carol is one of my absolute favorites. Also, Moby-Dick is SO GOOD for half of the novel. I still need to finish it, ha ha. So good to meet you. I just followed here. Cheers! 🙂

    • Hi Jillian,
      Thanks so much for the welcome! And thank you for your perspective on “The Portrait of a Lady.” I hadn’t considered that James doesn’t come out and specifically say that Archer goes back to Osmond, since I felt it was so strongly implied. If it is true that she doesn’t go back then that calls into question whether or not Isabel actually conforms to Gilbert Osmond’s ancient ideals or whether she returns to her strong independence that she had in the beginning. The fact that James leaves the topic vague is intriguing.
      As to classics, I am SO excited to read all of them. Many of them have been on my TBR list for ages and I’m very excited to read them all. I’m so glad to meet you as well, Jillian! Keep in touch.

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