Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady: Deconstructing Isabel Archer’s Feminist Facade
- Julie Smith, Associate Professor of English, Pepperdine University
- Constance Fulmer, Professor of English, Associate Dean, Pepperdine University
Using both Feminist Literary Theory and Deconstruction, this paper offers a reading of Henry James’s novel, The Portrait of a Lady, that examines the character of Isabel Archer by revealing the possibility that a portrait of a lady falls into both categories of feminine assertion and societal expectations. Bringing the novel into the modern realism era, James’s text attempts to provide a character portrait of the ideal Victorian woman. James’s novel however remains riddled with uncertainty as Isabel exemplifies qualities of both the proto-feminist movement as well as the acceptance of cultural norms. Together, Feminist Literary Criticism and Derrida’s conception of Deconstruction allow for an examination of Isabel’s actions, motives, and the patriarchal power structure in which she lives that stray from the traditional gender binary. More specifically, James critiques the traditional male power structure by examining Isabel’s initial independence, subsequent introspection, and final ambiguity in order to reveal the complex dimensions of the female character. When paired with the theory of Deconstruction, Isabel’s character displays a degree of obscurity that makes her exit a hinge point that leaves the final meaning undefined. Isabel neither follows social convention nor completely disregards feminine expectations. The uncertainty of her final exit offers a view of Isabel as both accepting and rejecting society’s gender conventions. By looking at the indefiniteness of the traditional gender roles as seen through Isabel it can be argued that James fails to supply a clear a example of what a lady should be. James’s portrait of Isabel thus reveals the possibility that a true lady is not confined by the binary definitions of independent woman or obedient wife. Rather, Isabel’s complexities and ambiguities reveal the alternative view that a lady can embody both the ideas of the feminist movement as well as the acceptance of cultural expectations.