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The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Regarded as one of James’ finest works, The Portrait of a Lady revolves around the life and the development of Isabel Archer as she embarks on a scrupulous journey of self-discovery, forced to choose between her individual freedom and the preset conventions of society. Moreover, the novel explores themes of existentialism, objectification of women, wealth, suffering, and the conflict between individual longing and social conformity.Set in the second half of the 19th century, the novel opens with the introduction of Isabel Archer, a naive young woman from Albany, New York. Raised in a haphazard manner by her father, Isabel has been encouraged to nurture her independence from a young age, which later results in her becoming cautious in her selection of possible suitors. Following her father’s death, Isabel is visited by her expatriate aunt, Mrs. Touchett, who suggests that Isabel should accompany her back to her home in England. Isabel excitedly accepts the invitation, looking forward to the opportunity to experience life at a whole new level, and duly sets out on the trip of a lifetime. Subsequently, she arrives at the Touchett country estate, where she meets Mr. Touchett and her sick cousin Ralph. Furthermore, Isabel is beset with numerous marriage proposals that threaten her hopes of freedom. Taking an interest in her outlook on life, Ralph convinces his wealthy father to leave part of his fortune to Isabel, supposedly to help her maintain her self-sufficiency. However, Isabel quickly comes to recognize the dividing line between her American values of freedom and independence, and the rigid European social values. Consequently, Isabel must reap what she has sown, as her life takes an unplanned route away from her initial naïve expectations, and instead leads her to a harsh reality triggered by disillusion. Adding to the glory of the novel is James’ focus on psychological detail and realistic situations, which in turn provides more depth to his characters, as is evident in his heroine’s simultaneous struggle with her aspiration for independence and her desire to conform to the prerequisites of society. Fortified by James’ continuous use of ellipsis, descriptive language, and a distinctive set of realistic characters, the novel proves to be well worth its critical acclaim.

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