Henry James was born in New York in 1843. He was an important figure of English and American literature. He travelled a lot and wrote many works: short stories, novels and travel essays, but his most important play is “The portrait of a Lady”. His works have some autobiographical aspects, because, like many of his characters, James left his home land for Europe in order to enrich his culture.
The portrait of a Lady is the story of Isabel, an American girl who is visiting Europe and inherits a great deal of money. She refuses the proposals of marriage by Caspar and Lord Warburton. In the meantime her cousin Ralph has fallen in love with her but he doesn’t tell her about his feelings and he died of tuberculosis.
Isabel falls in love and marries Osmond, an American artist, but he exploits the situation for her money, ruining her life.
Isabel realizes she would have to marry Caspar, who is still in love with her, but she remains trapped by the social conventions of that period.
He focuses on the characters’ interior world, expressing their point of view and involving readers in the protagonists’ psychological development. External events are of little importance. The author breaks with the Victorian tradition of fictional realism characterized by an external omniscient narrator. In fact, his novels are based on the exploration of feelings, moral choices, dilemmas of existence and complexity of human relations. The story is narrated in third person, so the reader is directly involved in the characters’ thought processes and sees things from their different points of view.
James indirectly criticizes society, showing how social conventions can be seen as traps because they lost moral values.
“The Portrait of a Lady” explores the conflict among the individuals and society, by examining the life of Isabel, who must choose between her independent spirit and the demands of social conventions.
This novel is considered as a bildungsroman because it explores the educational process of a character, that reveals the gap between the internal nature of ideas and how they come to be in the external world.
Moreover, the novel expresses James’s view of the relationship of the American and European consciousness. American characters are lively but restricted by Puritan conventions, while Europeans have a rich culture but they fell in decadence. In this case, the cynical Osmond represents the corrupt influences of Europe for Americans.
James uses a “dramatic method”, in fact, the readers often has the impression of following the scenes of a play.