Follow TV Tropes


Literature / The Portrait of a Lady

Go To
A True Lady

"Her imagination was by habit ridiculously active; when the door was not open it jumped out the window."

Henry James novel originally serialised in 1880-81, which tells the story of Isabel Archer, a Spirited Young Lady who, after the death of her father, leaves her native Albany for Britain in company of her estranged aunt Lydia Touchett. Isabel eschews marriage in favour of her ambition to see as much of the world as possible and find her own purpose in life, but when she inherits a fortune from her uncle, Lydia's husband Daniel, she is soon caught up in the Machievellian scheming of two other American expatriates.

The book was made into a feature film in 1996, directed by Jane Campion, and starring Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey and Shelley Duvall.

This work contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Pansy doesn't realize that her father is emotionally abusive, poor little thing. But she suffers a lot and eventually is really afraid of him.
  • Affably Evil: Gilbert Osmond is mostly outwardly polite, never raises a finger on anyone or threatens someone. He's just that good at manipulating and dominating people emotionally.
  • All Love Is Unrequited:
    • Lord Warburton, Caspar Goodwood and Ralph all love Isabel who is flattered or annoyed depending on the suitors' respective insistence, but doesn't love romantically any of them (she does love Ralph but in a Like Brother and Sister way).
    • Also a rare familial example: Madame Merle is Pansy's mother and loves her, but Pansy doesn't know that and not only she dislikes Madame Merle — Madame Merle seems to be about the only person the sweet Pansy dislikes.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Isabel has left England to go back to Rome, but we don't know if she will stay with her husband or she's just going to take Pansy with her.
  • Ambition Is Evil:
    • Osmond agrees to Madame Merle's scheme of having Isabel marrying him so he could afford his lavish lifestyle and find a good match for his daughter like Lord Warburton.
    • Madame Merle's used to be rather ambitious in her youth, but didn't quite succeed in getting the social status she longed for.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Ralph declares his love for Isabel, but he never actually means to propose or pursue a true romantic relationship. The anguish comes from his knowledge of Isabel's independent nature and a feeling that he's not enough for her.
    Ralph: I love you, but I love without hope.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Osmond and Madame Merle manipulate people together to their mutual benefit, though it's clear quite early to the reader, but not to Isabel. Madame Merle is slightly more sympathetic than him, as he thinks mostly only on himself and he rarely helps her in turn as he should according to their pact.
  • Big Fancy House: Gardencourt is a gorgeous house with a beautiful garden situated in the English countryside.
  • Brutal Honesty: Mrs. Touchett is intensely judgemental, and has no qualms about telling what she thinks of any subject.
  • Cassandra Truth:
    • Ralph knows since the beginning that Osmond is a "sterile dilettante". His mother shares the same opinion, but neither of them is listened by Isabel.
    • Mrs. Touchett is the only person who realizes with clarity that Madame Merle is two-faced - simply because the latter at one point says one thing and does another - but Isabel just thinks that her aunt lacks the subtlety of a mind in interpreting what she saw.
  • Cast Full of Rich People: The book is focused on the lives of people from the English upper-class (like Lord Warburton) and American expatriates living in Europe in high style. They're all rich, beautiful and eccentric.
  • The Dandy: Osmond poses as a aesthete, but in reality he is desperate for the admiration of those around him. Ned Rosier is a more sympathetic version, if dumber.
  • Dating What Daddy Hates: Pansy is being courted by a penniless art collector, and Osmond hates it. Daddy is quite a hypocrite, because he could be described with very similar words.
  • Death by Childbirth: How Gilbert Osmond's first wife died until we learn she didn't die in this way.
  • Did Not Get the Girl:
    • Caspar Goodwood was refused several times.
    • Lord Warburton was refused by Isabel.
    • Ralph didn't even try to propose to Isabel, even though he adored her.
    • Implied Most likely Ned Rosier didn't marry Pansy.
  • Domestic Abuse: Of the emotional variety, from Gilbert. He is overwhelming to both his wife and his daughter.
  • Dude Magnet: Oh, Isabel! Almost every male character has shown interest in her at some point.
  • Dying Declaration of Love: Ralph confesses his love for Isabel when he's dying when she's at his deathbed.
    And remember this, he continued, that if you’ve been hated, you’ve also been loved. Ah but Isabel-adored!
  • Evil Parents Want Good Kids: Gilbert has his daughter brought up in such a way so that she is innocent, submissive and obedient especially because he wants her to marry rich.
  • Foreshadowing: In her first visit to Gardencourt, Isabel asks Ralph to show her the ghost of the castle, and Ralph answer her that she must have suffered to be able to see it. And when at the end she sees the ghost, it turns out to be Ralph himself who has just died and she's devasted.
  • Gold Digger: Gilbert Osmond married Isabel to have the money to indulge in his decadent lifestyle and also to socially elevate himself and his teenage daughter.
  • Lady of Adventure: Isabel wishes she could be one. She enjoys travelling very much, travels from her home America to England, then travels in Europe, visits Paris and chooses to settle in Italy.
  • Last-Name Basis: Almost everyone refers to Gilbert Osmond by his last name Osmond, even his sister and his wife.
  • Love at First Sight: Lord Warburton claims to have fallen for Isabel instantly. Unfortunately for him, it is one-sided. Isabel knows he is a worthy person, but she doesn't want to marry him.
  • Meaningful Name: Madame Merle's first name is revealed to be Serene, and that she is, for better or worse.
  • Missing Mom: Pansy's mom is dead and sees Isabel as a Parental Substitute. Turns out that her mother is alive. She's not a child of Osmond's first wife as people assume, but she's the illegitimate child of Osmond and Madame Merle.
  • The Mistress: Madame Merle had an affair with Osmond that resulted in Pansy, and it never quite ended.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Ralph makes Isabel an heiress because of her dream of being independent but her own wealth traps her in a loveless marriage.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Countess Gemini is pretty much a Gossipy Hen but she's not fooled by anyone.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: Mrs. Touchett claims she never got along with her brother-in-law, the late Mr. Archer, and that's why she has been The Ghost for her nieces until his death.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Osmond refuses to allow Pansy to marry Ned Rosier, and his devoted daughter is unable to defy him. When he fears she may do so anyway, he has her confined to a convent.
  • Parental Substitute: Pansy really likes Isabel who married her father and she looks up to her, though they're not that far apart in age and could be actually sisters. She likes more than her own biological mother. She's not aware who Madame Merle is.
  • Proper Lady: Madame Merle is a deconstruction. She's beautiful, educated, perfectly mannered, but her ambitious streak and her darker, manipulative side isn't easy to be spotted.
  • Romantic False Lead: One would expect one of Isabel's relentless suitors to "win", first her hand, then, after her marriage turns out to be a disaster, her heart. Osmond marries Isabel but out of selifish reasons, and none of the men who truly love Isabel, has any romantic success with her.
  • Secret Relationship: A very dark example of Just Friends: Osmond and Madame Merle used to be lovers in the past, have a child together and still are partners in manipulations.
  • Shipper on Deck:
    • Mr. Touchett would like to see his son Ralph and his wife's niece together, but Ralph uses his illness as an excuse not to get involved, and Isabel does not love Ralph romantically. But they get along great and become the best of friends.
    • Henrietta ships Caspar/Isabel. Caspar Goodwood is the first of Isabel's suitors from America. Henrietta even attempts to play The Matchmaker and arranges for those two meet, even though Isabel does not really appreciate it.
  • Snow Means Death: It snows at Ralph's funeral.
  • The Social Expert:
    • Ralph isn't fooled by anyone. He sees people for what they are. It takes the other social expert, Madame Merle, to outwit him. The fact that, at first, he is the only person to actively dislike Madame Merle can be seen as his intuitive grasp that she is untrustworthy.
    • Madame Merle is a skillful older woman who knows her way in society. She is later revealed to be a skillful manipulator.
  • Spirited Young Lady: Isabel Archer (the lady from the title) is a young American woman who is beautiful and intelligent, and very well aware of that. She leaves America for Britain in company of her estranged aunt. She enjoys travelling, and her ambition is to see the world and find her own purpose in life. Isabel values her independence and at times she seems to act independent just to prove that she can. After the death of her uncle Mr. Touchett, Isabel inherits a large sum of money. She feels that wealth has both given her more freedom, but also taken away the specific kind of independence she had when she was just a rather poor girl from a good family. She is a very charming young lady, and almost every male character is enchanted with her or falls in love with her.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Isabel's American suitor Caspar Goodwood tries really hard to get Isabel to like him romantically and marry him, or elope with him, and he takes his following her around the globe to a really scary level. Isabel certainly doesn't view it positively. In his defence, it's usually Isabel's friend Henrietta Stackpole who gets him to meet Isabel.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Ned Rosier and Pansy are victim of Parental Marriage Veto by Pansy's father, who wants her daughter to marry rich and possibly into nobility.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: After learning of Madame Merle's story and how she among other things betrayed her, Isabel can only pity Madame Merle for being separated from and disliked by her daughter Pansy.
  • Unexpected Inheritance: Isabel inherits a fortune after her uncle Mr. Touchett dies. Because Ralph had persuaded him to do so.
  • Unrequited Love Lasts Forever: None of Isabel's suitors get over her in a tiniest degree even years after she's married.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Ralph and Henrietta argue and banter all the time whenever they meet. Henrietta is slow to notice that they have become good friends.

Alternative Title(s): Portrait Of A Lady, The Portrait Of A Lady