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The Portrait of a Lady (Norton Critical Editions) 2nd Edition

4.6 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0340915455
ISBN-10: 0393966461
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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Robert D. Bamberg is Emeritus Professor of English at Kent State University. He previously taught at Bates College (where he was chairman of the department and Dean of the Faculty) and at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. from Cornell University. He is the author of articles on British and American fiction and is editor of The Confessions of Jereboam O. Beauchamp. He is an affiliate member of the American Psychoanalytic Association and practices psychoanalysis in Cleveland.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 800 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 2 edition (August 17, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393966461
  • ISBN-13: 978-0340915455
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #205,063 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWER on May 10, 2006
Format: Paperback
When Isabel Archer, a bright and independent young American, makes her first trip to Europe in the company of her aunt, Mrs. Touchett, who lives outside of London in a 400-year-old estate, she discovers a totally different world, one which does not encourage her independent thinking or behavior and which is governed by rigid social codes. This contrast between American and European values, vividly dramatized here, is a consistent theme in James's novels, one based on his own experiences living in the US and England. In prose that is filled with rich observations about places, customs, and attitudes, James portrays Isabel's European coming-of-age, as she discovers that she must curb her intellect and independence if she is to fit into the social scheme in which she now finds herself.

Isabel Archer, one of James's most fully drawn characters, has postponed a marriage in America for a year of travel abroad, only to discover upon her precipitate and ill-considered marriage to an American living in Florence, that it is her need to be independent that makes her marriage a disaster. Gilbert Osmond, an American art collector living in Florence, marries Isabel for the fortune she has inherited from her uncle, treating her like an object d'art which he expects to remain "on the shelf." Madame Serena Merle, his long-time lover, is, like Osmond, an American whose venality and lack of scruples have been encouraged, if not developed, by the European milieu in which they live.

James packs more information into one paragraph than many writers do into an entire chapter.
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Format: Paperback
I've come back to this novel after reading it in graduate school thirty years ago, and I remain awed by James's genius. His ability to depict the nuance of social interaction is unparalleled. His psychological understanding of his characters is almost uncanny. Add to that perhaps the most complex, devious, sociopathic villains in literature -- Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond -- and you have a gripping story of greed, deception, and innocence lost. "The Portrait of a Lady" represents the true epitome of the 19th-century English novel.
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Format: Paperback
A wonderfully engrossing book for students and amateur fans of the comedy of manners genre.

I must say that the previous commentator gets so many simple "diegetic" facts wrong I wonder why they bothered summarizing the book in the first place. Simple things like the fact that Isabel's Aunt does not live at Gardencourt, but in Florence; she merely visits the former annually. Likewise Ed Rosier is not a lover of Isabel's, but a childhood friend from the states; he "makes love" to Pansy Osmond, Isabel's step-daughter, making for a nice contrast of "true" affection with Isabel's husband's mere seemings in that regard.

Finally the idea that "her need to be independent makes her marriage a disaster" is a gross mischaracterization that makes James sound like some kind of male-chauvanist reactionary. Not that there's anything with that, it's just not the case in the most basic terms of the novel.

Why? First of all, Isabel, bright as she is, enters into marriage knowing full well that it will mean some curtailing of the freedom of her maidenhood, she says as much in a crucial dialogue about her impending marriage with Ralph Touchett, who's Cassandra-like in his unheeded prevision of disaster. (See chapter 34 for the exact lines.) When she says she's ready to gratify her very particular husband's wishes Ralph retorts that she was meant for more than catering to the sensibilities of a "sterile dilettante". This exactly incapsulates why the marriage is a failure: Osmond's sterility is not a simple matter of his not being an active gentleman with a noble/haute bourgeois occupation --- as with Lord Warburton or the senior Touchett --- more importantly, it involves his inability to love a women as vibrant as Isabel (Pansy, of course, is not a problem).
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Format: Paperback
Reading this novel is like receiving a punch in the stomach - yet from an exquisitely gloved fist. If you like character-driven stories with explosive endings, this novel is for you.

James is a genius in charting the complexities of the human psyche. His predilection for characterization and psychological analysis over plot development is what drives this novel. In fact, there is a lot of "action" - yet confined to the emotional landscape of characters.

James' literary style is very dense and requires a measured pace of reading. If this becomes frustrating (as it did to me occasionally), it's best to read it in spurts. The richness of the novel demands leisurely consumption, like an elaborate French meal, to be appreciated piece by piece.

Here is an example of typical sentence construction:

[QUOTE] Like his appreciation of her dear little stepdaughter it was based partly on his eye for decorative character, his instinct for authenticity; but also on a sense for uncatalogued values, for that secret of a "luster" beyond any recorded losing or rediscovering, which his devotion to brittle wares had still not disqualified him to recognise. Mrs. Osmond, at present, might well have gratified such tastes. The years had touched her only to enrich her; the flower of her youth had not faded, it only hung more quietly on its stem. [END QUOTE]

Despite its density The Portrait of a Lady is more accessible than James' later novels - including The Ambassadors (Oxford World's Classics) - and is a good place to start with this classic author.

The main delight of the novel is in the characters - they are all exquisitely crafted and richly draped.
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