Isabel Archers Downfall in Henry James The Portrait of a Lady



It is an unquestionable fact of life that human nature is flawed. Human beings have a
variety of weaknesses that may differ from one person to the next. How one deals with this
ultimately determines whether it will or will not destroy the person. The faults that humans
possess stem from an open field of possibilities that they are able to choose from as they build
their own character. However, as much as individual free will is desirable, as all other parts of
the natural world, it can include negative aspects, as well. Probably, the most difficult element
is being able to make good choices, keeping in mind what Mahatma Gandhi once said, "Freedom
is not worth having if it does not connote freedom to err." Once a state of freedom is attained,
all of its sides are encompassed. This essential human cycle of freedom has progressed along
with the changing times, views, and values in society. It is depicted by many authors in
countless novels. Henry James\' perception accurately describes the shifts that occurred in
society during the late nineteenth century. He uses colorful characters in his writings to express
his opinions on actual revolutionary outlooks of the time and to comment on human nature. The
Portrait of a Lady is an example of his view on freedom. The quest for personal freedom
destroys Isabel Archer in Henry James\' The Portrait of a Lady.
Isabel Archer is introduced instantly, in the novel, as a woman with strong and
uncompromising convictions. The first glimpse of Isabel shows that she is "quite independent"
(James 27). This early description sets expectations for her character. When Isabel herself
appears on the lawn of Gardencourt, where she is met by the family she has never known, she
strikes Ralph as having "a great deal of confidence, both in herself and in others" (James 31).
Isabel\'s charisma could be felt by people that were strangers to her. Her attitude and stubborn
personality shine through and can be visible in everything she does. A little later at Gardencourt,
Isabel is appalled at the very idea of being considered "a candidate for adoption" after her aunt
takes her away from her home where she had no parents: "I\'m very fond of my liberty," she says
(James 35). Clearly, Isabel is not afraid to let others know how she feels, no matter how
disagreeable her views may be. One such subject is liberty, which means to know everything,
including all the possibilities ahead in order to choose freely, confidently, responsibly; as when
she tells her aunt that she always likes to know the things one shouldn\'t do, "so as to choose"
(James 86). Such frank language is what makes Isabel who she is, a person who takes risks,
often thoughtlessly. Unsurprisingly, Isabel reveals she is afraid of becoming "a mere sheep in
the flock" because she wants to be the sole free master of her own fate (James 182-183). In
other words, Isabel declines to be anybody\'s puppet. Choosing the direction that her life heads is
only her decision, even when she cannot make that choice skillfully. Although Isabel cherishes
it, her independence is not necessarily always best for her.
With the passing of time at Gardencourt, Isabel Archer reveals more of her headstrong
qualities. Her uncle\'s passing allows her to reveal this. When Isabel\'s uncle dies, he gives the
humble, yet sharp, girl a large amount of money which changes her life. Isabel\'s newly acquired
fortune brings her an enlarged freedom, however problematic. Consequently, Isabel believes
that she is now freer than ever before. However, she is scared of the burden of tremendous
responsibility involved in complete, unquestionable freedom. She is free- she thinks- to choose
her own fate. And so she believes she does when she fulfills her "one ambition- to be free to
follow out a good feeling" (James 374). The heroine follows this principle of freedom
throughout the rest of the novel. Constant anxiety surrounds Isabel about the use she would ever
make of her freedom, which she never doubts or questions. By accepting the consequences her
free acts, Isabel is satisfied by doing herself the justice of always being considerate of herself.
"She has chosen with the sense that the ordinary benefits of life are not likely to satisfy her, and
her major acts [will be] refusals to accept the ordinary" (O\'Neill 39). Keeping this in mind,
Isabel proceeds throughout the novel