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Henry James and The Portrait of a Lady

Henry James' unique version of realism is never more evident than in The Portrait of a Lady. He followed traditional realism in that his characters remained true to their identity regardless of the situation, but James diverged from realism in that the world where his characters lived had nothing to do with real life. This paper will explore James' view of realism as contained in this work.

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James reflects the influences and techniques advocated by James' friends and intimates, Ivan Turgenev and William Cooper Howells. These writers were very much products of their age, an age where morality and realism collided. The story of Isabel Archer, the heroine of James's novel, provides an example of the authors' similarities and disparities.

Henry James built a story by "reconstructing its steps and stages" (James 5). James and Turgenev both used the concept of the "germ," a technique of taking the protaganist and carving, polishing, and then perfecting the gem in the rough. Each new character and dramatic situation peeled another layer of the onion, revealing more and more. Similarly, as Leon Edel notes in his introduction to The Portrait of a Lady, "Turgenev allowed his stories to evolve from his characters, that is, by providing them with their personal history" (James xv).

James referred to Turgenev in his preface as a "beautiful genius," citing his belief that one should approach writing with interesting characters who are only rendered more compelling and real when confronted with "complications" (James 5). Turgenev explained, "If I watch [my characters] long enough I see them come together, I see them placed, I see them engaged in this or that act and in this or that difficulty" (James 5). James is certainly a follower of this style of realism, which relies not so much on a true environment but rather the following of his characters' true destinies. James never constructs a relatio...

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Henry James and The Portrait of a Lady. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 13:57, March 19, 2019, from