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Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady

See also a list of images from the book, a bibliography, and a set of pictures.

Reading Questions: Book I

1. In what ways does the first chapter establish the themes and ideas of the rest of the work? Why does James begin with tea on the lawn?

2. Isabel appears in the second chapter. In what ways is she introduced to the reader here? What do the details of her background (in Chapter Three) contribute to our understanding of her? What are the distinguishing features of her house in Albany, and why is it important in understanding her character?

3. The idea of suffering plays an important role in this novel. In what ways does the conversation about suffering foreshadow some of the events later in the novel?

4. The Touchett family-- Lydia, Daniel, and Ralph--is introduced at length. As expatriate Americans, they exemplify certain traits that James weaves into many of his novels. How is Ralph like his father? How is he like his mother?

5. Mrs. Touchett is, like Isabel, an American woman fond of her liberty. In what other ways do the two resemble each other?

6. James presents Isabel with three potentially eligible suitors: Lord Warburton, Ralph, and Caspar Goodwood. What is her response to each, and what does this response say about her ambitions and values? What does each represent? Why would a realistic novel begin with what is essentially a romance plot--one not unlike that of The Merchant of Venice, where Portia must choose?

8. Note the language of science and observation in this novel: Ralph’s detachment, Isabel’s interest in “specimens.” What is the relationship between observation and action here? Is it better to observe than to live and act? Is there a point at which observation becomes a failure of action, a kind of decadent voyeurism? On the other hand, is impulsive action seen to have negative consequences?

9. Which characters might be considered artists, and of what does their art consist? Henrietta Stackpole, Ralph Touchett, Madame Merle, Isabel, and Gilbert Osmond are some possibilities.

10. Henrietta Stackpole is another foil for Isabel. What does she represent? How are we to regard her journalistic intrusions?

11. In his preface, James declares that the principal question in The Portrait of a Lady is “what will she do,” but we might equally ask “what does she want?” Chapter 17 gives a partial answer to this, but where else do you find evidence of Isabel’s motives?

12. Note James’s method in introducing characters. Madame Merle, for example, is first heard playing the piano (ch. 18), then discussed by Ralph, reflected on by Isabel (ch. 19), described by Mrs. Touchett, and finally defined by herself.

13. In what ways are the characters in this book defined by their association with forms of architecture?

14. Discuss Isabel’s meeting with her three suitors in St. Peter’s (ch. 22)

Comments to D. Campbell