In Focus

Henry James, Portrait of a Lady

The somber expression of _Miss Gertrude Murray, as portrayed by Thomas Eakins, hints at the sitter's active mental state. Consider the ways Ms. Murray might visualize the unhappy heroine of Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1881) whose intelligent sensibility is her undoing._

"Yes, you're changed; you've got new ideas over here," her friend continued.

"I hope so," said Isabel; "one should get as many new ideas as possible."

"Yes; but they shouldn't interfere with the old ones when the old ones have been the right ones."

Who was she, what was she, that she should hold herself superior? What view of life, what design upon fate, what conception of happiness, had she that pretended to be larger than these large, these fabulous occasions?

"I don't know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me. Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me; everything on the contrary a limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one. Certainly the clothes which, as you say, I choose to wear, don't express me; and heaven forbid they should! My clothes may express the dressmaker, but they don't express me. To begin with it's not my own choice to wear them; they're imposed upon me by society."

The carriage, leaving the walls of Rome behind, rolled through narrow lanes where the wild honeysuckle had begun to tangle itself in the hedges, or waited for her in quiet places where the fields lay near, while she strolled further and further over the flower-freckled turf, or sat on a stone that had once had a use and gazed through the veil of her personal sadness at the splendid sadness of the scene—at the dense, warm light, the far gradations and soft confusions of colour, the motionless shepherds in lonely attitudes, the hills where the cloud-shadows had the lightness of a blush.

It couldn't be she was only to suffer; she was still young, after all, and a great many things might happen to her yet. To live only to suffer—only to feel the injury of life repeated and enlarged—it seemed to her she was too valuable, too capable, for that. Then she wondered if it were vain and stupid to think so well of herself. When had it even been a guarantee to be valuable?

Web Resources

The Portrait of a Lady
Read the original magazine publication of this novel (Atlantic Monthly, volume 46, issue 277, November 1880) through Cornell University Library's "Making of America" website.