The Portrait of Isabel Archer

  • Juliet McMaster
  • Rowland McMaster


In order to see the ghost of Gardencourt, Ralph Touchett tells his cousin Isabel at the beginning of The Portrait of a Lady, “You must have suffered first, have suffered greatly, have gained some miserable knowledge.”1 Isabel, who as “a young, happy, innocent person” evidently does not qualify, nevertheless remains eager to see the ghost; and by the end of the novel, on the night of Ralph’s death, “she apparently had fulfilled the necessary condition; for … in the cold, faint dawn, she knew that a spirit was standing by her bed” (II, 418).2 It is as though a quest has been achieved: she has sought her suffering and her miserable knowledge, and found them. Dorothy Van Ghent has seen Isabel’s quest as being for happiness,3 and so it is. But Isabel is deeply ambivalent. On the one hand, like a true American, she is ardently engaged in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; but on the other she is morbidly attracted by their opposites, and devotes herself to death, and immobility, and suffering. She is enamoured of the ghost of Gardencourt. It is this side of Isabel that I want to explore.


Innocent Person Good Wood Morbid Sense Wanton Destruction Precious Thing 
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  1. 1.
    Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady, 2 vols, vol. i, (New York, 1908) p. 64. Subsequent references to this novel will appear in the text.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Dorothy Van Ghent, The English Novel, Form and Function (New York, 1953) p. 214.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Juliet and Rowland McMaster 1981

Authors and Affiliations

  • Juliet McMaster
  • Rowland McMaster

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