Jacqueline Wood

Publication Date


Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

William McMahon, Nancy Davis, James Flynn


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Degree Program

Department of English

Degree Type

Master of Arts


The presence of evil in our lives is one of the major themes in Henry James's works. The question of evil and its expression through feminine characters is present in most of James's later works. One of James's first clearly defined uses of the question of evil and femininity occurs in his transitional novel The Portrait of a Lady. In this work, as in many of his later novels, evil is rooted in the fundamental nature of man and is expressed most realistically through a female consciousness. Although Isabel Archer is James's heroine of the novel and perhaps his most celebrated female character, there is an important presence in The Portrait of a Lady of another female character, Madame Merle, who obviously merits and receives serious attention from James because of her undeniable villainy. It is through this surreptitious female character that James is able to expose to his readers several major aspects of evil and femininity and to expand these to a philosophical exploration of the juxtaposition of cultures.

In this thesis, how Madame Merle, as one of James's earliest fully developed female villains, represents and expresses these elements will be explored. James gives her three faces: Madame Merle as a feminine sensibility, as a representative of evil, and as a way to the development of the ideal woman and, ultimately, the ideal culture. The influence that these three faces have upon Isabel creates part of the impact of James's novel; Madame Merle is thus important to the heroine's growth of knowledge. And in addition to this, the reader should find other elements in the life of Madame Merle which illuminate major interests in the fictional strategies of James.


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