Freedom, Responsibility, and Male Consensus in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady

Publication Year



Gender, freedom, literature, Henry James, English, responsibility


Comparative Literature | Creative Writing | English Language and Literature | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies


In The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer starts out as an innocent, idealistic young girl who, believing she is "perfectly free," "affronts" her destiny with a bold, defiant desire to put the world to the test. Her youthful optimism and absolute belief in her theory of life give the impression of freedom, yet limit her by blinding her to reality. "She had a theory that it was only under this provision life was worth living; that one should be one of the best, should be conscious of a fine organisation (she couldn't help knowing her organisation was fine, should move in a realm of light, of natural wisdom, of happy impulse, of inspiration gracefully chronic...She held it must be detestable to be afraid or shamed. She had an infinite hope that she should never do anything wrong...On the whole, reflectively, she was in no uncertainty about the things that were wrong". In her arrogant innocence, Isabel works toward her perceived destiny in a "perfect circle" of a good and free world. As a bright, sensitive woman striving for independence in a patriarchal culture, however, she is free only to follow impulsive extremes, and her destiny lies not in a good and free world, but in a recognition of the suffering and evil in a corrupt world. She rejects mindless liberty and gains true freedom only after she accepts the responsibilities and suffering of this world and recognizes the power of the narrator, characters, and reader that make up the patriarchal consensus.

Department 1 Awarding Honors Status

English: Literature and Writing

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