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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The end of The Portrait of a Lady: How could you!

The conclusion at last of Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady," and what a horror it is! Isabel Archer leaves her husband Osmond against his direct orders (!) to go to England to visit her dying cousin Ralph. After Ralph dies she briefly sees her first suitor, Warburton, who is now engaged to an English woman he's known for 3 weeks (we never see her). Isabel's aunt is cold and distant, her best friend Henrietta about to marry Bantling. The only one left is a hapless Goodwood, who shows up and pleads with her to leave her marriage and stay with him - to turn her back on convention and propriety. He holds her, kisses her, it's the first time this cold woman has ever felt (as far as we know - this is a James novel after all) any sexual stirring. And then, finally, in the last scene, we learn that Isabel has gone back to her husband. How awful! What a terrible, empty life she will face - much like her aunt, who lived through a loveless marriage. This ending so painful that James cannot even write it directly, but in typical Jamesian manner he shows it by indirection - Henrietta informing Goodwood. I've posted on this issue before, but the end of Portrait is a distinct turning toward European trope: the hero returning toward incorporation in society and convention. An American hero(ine) would definitely have run away with Goodwood, would opt for the rebellious, the unconventional, the individual. Whether James himself is corrupted by the European style (does he really think Isabel is doing the right thing?) or whether he's showing us the ruination of a character is another topic. But I think all American readers who finish this novel must say: How could you!

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  1. Yes, how could James end the Portrait in this way? It finds me searching the web for interpretations! Am I really to believe that James wants his fond "heroine" to return to her prison? That she, so beguiled by individualism in her pre Osmond life, bows to convention and cold control? Is convention that important to James? Admittedly, Goodwood is not the ideal hero, but he has her responding to him and mortally afraid of her feelings, so much so that she flees back to the "safety" (?) of a villain. It is an 19th century foreshadow of the Stockholm Syndrome. It seems his mistake in writing is that both Goodwood and Lord Warburton are ineffectual in their responses to her. Goodwood can't help but outpace her and Warburton fails to take his opportunities, leaving Osmond as the one who connects emotionally with her albeit in a controlling, way. His pathetic pleas, follow and intertwine with heartless destruction of spirit, but nevertheless never fail to sway her toward him.

  2. Thank you, Gentian, for this insightful comment. Yes, there is an element of Stockholm Syndrome in Portrait; hadn't seen it that way. - ek

  3. I have just read this book for the first time. I am surprised that it seems to be generally assumed that Isabel Archer returns to live with Osmond when she takes the first train back to Rome. Could it not be that she returns to Rome to confront him - to have the "Scene" which will end their marriage, freeing her to choose hot sex with Goodwood, if that is her choice? She has the solution to the Pansy question too, as Rosier might well accept her questionable parentage.
    I have yet to set eyes on the 1880s ending, so perhaps that precludes my reading, but Isabel has been shown to confide in Henrietta Stackpole, and Henrietts advises Goodwood to wait as if giving him "The key to patience." Surely that suggests that Isabel is going to separate from Osmond formally and will return.

    1. Thanks for your comment. There is a recent novel that imagines IA's life post-Portrait; you might be interested in checking it out.