Publication Date


Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

William McMahon, Frank Steele, Nancy Davis

Degree Program

Department of English

Degree Type

Master of Arts


Henry James, Jr. (1843-1916) has had a greater impact on the world of the novel than any other writer. The greatest controversy surrounding this most prolific of American authors and critics Concerns the area of sexual passion. The most insidious criticism leveled against James is that he and his characters lack sexuality. The whole problem is epitomized in this perusal of the sexual consciousness of Isabel Archer Osmond, the famous heroine in The Portrait of a Lady. While many critics simply ignore Isabel's sexuality, many others are less discerning than they should be, and some are absolutely mistaken: they appreciate the chaste. innocent young, virgin with blue-blooded ties, but they fail to recognize the healthy, red-blooded woman who is of greater depth in the very real "Lady" she becomes. James allows the observer to glimpse the white purity and strength of the young girl who is described as being independent or self-reliant and full of spirit in the beginning of the novel--there is a sexual aura in the sense of anticipation created here--but, while this first impression is a correct one and purposefully remains with the reader, James goes much further in brushstroking in impressionistic details as Isabel's senses are whetted and her character and feelings are further revealed through her relationships and growing experiences. Implicit in some critics' views is the assumption that Isabel can be placed on a pedestal of purity in men's minds and held there as some ideal of the eternal virgin awash in the white light of her intelligence precisely because she remains for them untainted by earthy sexuality. They see her as a cold work of art not vulnerable to carnal concerns. Those men fail to recognize that the experiences that contribute to her expanding sexual awareness detract from her personal beauty no more than the blooming of a rose detracts from the integrity of the tightly furled bud. The first chapter presents pertinent views of the critics. Most critics in finding Isabel either "sexually cold" or "frigid" point to the many instances in the novel when Isabel exhibits caution or fear of one kind or another and ultimately find in them all a "fear of sex." The second staccato-like chapter reveals Isabel's "fear" for what it is. Isabel's experiences and relationships with men and women are viewed under the microscope of the third chapter. The observer's growing awareness of the development of Isabel's sexuality is truly a process of accretion as James allows his reader glimpses of Isabel in different settings ranging from her chaste New England room to her husband's somewhat sinister home in Rome. This concluding chapter illustrates that anyone who will conscientiously scrutinize the ample details that James provides will find Isabel Archer Osmond in no way lacking in sexuality.


Arts and Humanities | English Language and Literature | Literature in English, British Isles