Henry James is the master of realist fiction and the portrait of a Lady was published as serials in the magazines: Atlantic and Macmillan. Literary critics hail his work as one his best pieces of fiction.
The protagonist of the story Isabel Archer is invited by her maternal aunt Lydia to visit her uncle’s home in London. There Isabel meets her invalid cousin Ralph and a neighbor Warburton. Isabel declines the offer of marriage made by Warburton and also a gentleman named Casper Good Wood. Lydia’s uncle grows ill and leaves her with a large legacy which she uses to travel to Florence. There she meets Osmond an American expatriate and marries him. Their relationship becomes one of sour grapes due to genuine lack of affection to Lydia by Osmond. Lydia wants Pansy the daughter out of Osmond’s first marriage to marry an art collector. But Osmond is more interested in marrying her to Warburton. Isabel then hears the news that her uncle is dying and she also comes to know that Pansy is the daughter of Madam Merle who had an adulterous relationship with Osmond. The ending of the story is rather cryptic leaving the reader to figure out whether Isabel would return to Osmond and also rescue Pansy from his clutches.
The novel cannot be considered as a masterpiece of fiction. The art of realism fails to achieve its aesthetic touch. There are several flaws in the story-line. One can hardly imagine it to be a fitting story. Tropes are sparingly used. There is no depth of character in the protagonist Isabel. As a work of literature—the oeuvre of art tends to be limited to a sparing minimalism. The novel lacks in philosophical content. Is Isabel a caricature of wounded feminine? Is she an archetype of the 18th century womanhood? A Marxian critic would dismiss the novel as being related to the life of the bourgeoisie. Does Isabel as a character in the novel want to pursue an independent feminine life? Why does she reject the proposals of her suitors? Why does she finally accept Osmond as her suitor? The male characters in the novel are very effeminate. The novel is intensely subjective. The novel does not adhere to any school of philosophical thought. The prose of the novel is pedantic and stultifying. The novel signifies the fin de siècle of century. Looking at the novel through the Nietzsche’ prism of art, one encounters only the Apollonian elements of melody and not the Dionysian elements rhythm and beat. There is no Aristotelian sense of cathartic consciousness in the novel. The novel does not satisfy the literary analyst Bakhtin’s sense of the dialogic. The novelist is not versatile in the usage of prose. Isabel’s relationships with men in the novel can be traced to the Freudian Electra complex. Isabel was looking for father figures in her life. The contemporary culture of the 18th century is not very conducive for aesthetic development of the human psyche. The novel does not have any suitable endings. The story of the novel is warped in the consciousness of disunity. The novel is a fragmented piece of prose. The novel does not provoke the psyche of the reader. As a literary work of art, the novel lacks aesthetic merit.