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Discussion: The Portrait of a Lady (Part 1)

Congratulations. You’re halfway through The Portrait of a Lady. What did you think of part one?

For me, the division into two parts provides a natural pause to consider what I’ve learned so far. Especially in a novel with such a large cast of characters, it can be helpful to stop and make notes on what connects these disparate personalities. How are they the same? How are they different? How does the interplay of their strengths and weaknesses move the story forward, and what does that stir up in my own life?

These are the lines that stick out to me most when it comes to Isabel:

“Her deepest enjoyment was to feel the continuity between the movements of her own soul and the agitations of the world.”

“She had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself… an infinite hope that she should never do anything wrong.”

“The love of knowledge coexisted in her mind with the finest capacity for ignorance.”

From the beginning, our lady is a study in contradiction. We’re meant to see her as a kind of blank canvas, and she seems to view herself in much the same way.  She’s terrified of decision, hesitant to take a strong position or hold too definitively to an opinion. On the one hand, this comes from her intuitive sense of the world’s complexity, and her desire to experience it for herself. On the other hand, it’s a kind of self-sabotage, a willful self-deception.

At the close of this first part, having refused two proposals of marriage, Isabel faces the likelihood of a third. What will it be– yes, or no? Isabel rebels against the very limitations of choice. She would prefer a third option: not indecision but nondecision. Stasis. She’d like an extension of this period of her life, hovering on the brink of so many possibilities, free from the intrusion of the narrowing future.

Yet there is more to her contradictory nature than simple fear of commitment. This surplus meaning comes from the relentless bombardment of other characters’ projections, their own desires reflected in the image they’ve formed of Isabel. She is, after all, only a portrait. How can any of these characters truly see her for who she is?

We might ask ourselves the same question. How well do you really “know” Isabel? What makes you feel this way? Do you trust that the narrator’s sense of her is accurate?

Photo: Tin House

If you want to take a different approach, here are a few other areas to consider as you continue reading.

Take an architectural walking tour: What does each character say about the building’s appearance or construction? What does that reflect about their values and world outlook? For example, you might compare Isabel’s initial impressions of Gardencourt with her protective words to Henrietta Stackpole later on: “It’s too lovely to be put in the newspapers, and it’s not what my uncle wants.”

Take an opinion poll on the word “independence”: How do you think each character would define independence? It could be interesting to do a series of free-writes from the perspective of different characters. What does Isabel say about Ralph and the role of freedom in his life? What does Ralph say about other characters’ freedom or lack thereof? Go back through the book and jot down notes, tracking one character at a time, or simply hunting for the words “freedom” and “independence”. Then set a timer for 5 minutes, and write without judgment. See what comes up.

Compare the scenes in which characters are viewing paintings together. There are several: Isabel and Ralph, on Isabel’s first night at Gardencourt, in chapter 5; Henrietta and Ralph’s tour of the same gallery, in chapter 10; and Isabel and Osmond in Osmond’s home, in chapter 24. What are the characters talking about and thinking about as they look at works of art? Is there a common theme among all three scenes?


Author Description

Melissa Reeser Poulin

Melissa Reeser Poulin is a poet and writer. Her work appears in basalt, Water~Stone Review, Ruminate, Calyx, and Sugar House Review, among other publications. She is co-editor of Winged: New Writing on Bees, a literary anthology to benefit pollinator conservation. Melissa received her MFA at Seattle Pacific University and teaches writing in Portland, Oregon. Read more and connect here.

  • Kim
    Melissa, I’m really enjoying the challenge of reading this book! Thank you for submitting this as our first read. I am finding it difficult to give it the time it deserves, though, so I am behind with the schedule and don’t have much to contribute right now. The way it is written and the images it brings to mind are of a period I find myself wishing I could go back in time to and yet am glad I don’t live in. Thanks for the other approaches to this book that you suggested. They will be helpful.
  • Anna H
    I just started reading the book this Saturday so I haven’t gotten very far. And I could only find the book in English which makes the reading go a bit slower than usaual. Especially when the language in the book is older. But I’m enjoying the book so far! And hopefully I can contribute with a few thoughts later.
  • melissa
    It doesn’t matter how quickly you read the book; what matters is your
    experience of it. I hope you both find it as rewarding and illuminating as I
    have. Kim, I know what you mean about simultaneously longing for another era
    and being unable to imagine yourself in any other time than your own. Anna, good for you for reading in the original language. That’s awesome.
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