The idealism of Henry James is apparent in his characterization of Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady. Within the novel we see that James expresses an idealistic worldview that embraces respect and humility for emotion, good conscience, freedom, and affection for country and family. However, within JamesÆ idealism we find that author ascribes to a belief that there is a narrow path toward what constitutes the ôgood life,ö and few there are that discover it. Albeit limitedly, Isabel Archer discovers this path toward life in Portrait of a Lady.
Though her intentions are well-placed, for most of her life Isabel Archer experiences an inner struggle between expressing her individualism and autonomy and respecting social mores, norms, and values. Though romanticism infuses her with spirit and enthusiasm for individual liberty, Isabel continually tries to please others even when she fails to understand why she is doing so. As James tells us of Isabel early in the story, ôHer life should always be in harmony with the most pleasing impression she should produce; she would be what she appeared, and she would appear what she wasö (74). Like many Americans in his works, James presents Isabel as someone who is simple and direct but also someone incapable of the refinements of culture despite a distinct feeling of superiority. We are told of IsabelÆs ôinflated idealsö (James 74).
The conflict of individualism versus social convention is illustrated often in the novel. When Isabel is taken to Europe by Mrs. Touchett, Isabel is charmed by her husband and son. Her aunt tries to impress upon her niece that being of a different class, there are appropriate social conventions that must be followed when interacting with the men. Isabel is repulsed by the idea that such conventions should arbitrarily exist, but she decides to follow them anyway even if she does not understand the need for them. In port