Thoughts on the Ending of The Portrait of a Lady

I just finished the second, and final, part of The Portrait of a Lady, and I was puzzled by the ending (serious spoilers ahead, so if you don’t what to know what happens in the novel, don’t read any further).

I was expecting something, a decision or a scene, hopefully one that involved the liberation of Isabel Archer from her miserable, unhappy life, and instead we get nothing. She is confronted by the last of her lovers, Mr. Goodwood, and he offers to help her out of her situation, to give her a permanent respite from her worries and struggles and sufferings, and she apparently declines. She leaves him on the grounds of Gardencourt and then, when he tries to find her, he discovers that she left for Rome. But Rome is both the home of her husband and her step-daughter, the innocent Pansy who supposedly needs her in her life.

Is she returning to save Pansy, to rescue her from Mr. Osmond’s tyrannical manipulation? Or is she just returning to the trap of her marriage because it is all she knows, or because of her high sense of honor? It was frustrating, and rather surprising, since it seems like she rejects the man who offers her the last chance at happiness for no good reason. Pansy is only her step-daughter, and as Osmond’s wife, her chances of actually affecting Pansy’s life and destiny are unlikely. At most, she will probably just become a bystander to Pansy’s unhappy destiny.

But this is a portrait, a sketch of a character, and it shows her encountering four men who challenge her independence in their own ways, and it shows her victory in the end. She is traveling alone, again, going back through Europe as an independent woman. She is going back to her husband, but she goes as a wife who did not submit to him, a wife who maintains her independence even when she made a mistake in marrying him in the first place.

Then it occurred to me that each of the men offered her a role in life, a death of herself, her independence swallowed up in a confining place for her in their lives. Ralph Touchett offered her the role of nursemaid and wife, with his death overhanging any chance of long-term happiness. Lord Warburton offered her the position of a peeress, another role in which she would have lost herself. Mr. Osmond offered her the position as his exalter, his savior in some ways, and she took it, only to find that the real role he’d had in mind was for her to be a clever extension of his own personalities, tastes, and feelings, a fine canvas upon which he could paint. She refused to be that canvas, and became simply his wife, who he hated and despised.

And even though Mr. Goodwood offers her his love, he does so at the loss of her self-respect. She would have to go with him as his mistress, as the woman who left her husband, as everything that Osmond said women were, and chapters before, she had been reviled by the idea of women who were so flagrantly unfaithful, who had lovers and affairs and intrigues.

And I was never convinced that she and Mr. Goodwood would’ve been a good match. When he first shows himself, we see him from her perspective, and we learn that she considers him to be her fate, an unavoidable destiny, a strength that she cannot match. In the end, though, she seems to match it; she rejects it, even when she could use the help, even when it would save her from her own folly. Such an offer was the “next best thing to her dying.” She finds his love acrid and strange, so that the “very taste of it, as of something potent…forced open her set teeth.”

This isn’t the sort of thing we should want her to have. It is a kind of violence, and for her to trust Mr. Goodwood is to surrender Isabel Archer forever. She has endured great misery and suffering, but she is herself. Henrietta emphasizes this throughout the ending by still calling her by her maiden name.

Just before Mr. Goodwood kisses her, she feels like she is sinking, with nothing to rest her feet on. She asks him to go away, and he refuses. He kisses her, and she feels lightning, “a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed.” Everything she dislikes about him solidifies itself into one entity, proclaiming its justification through his violence; he is a man who will not permit her any half measures. If she goes with him, her surrender will have to be complete.

And suddenly it’s dark again, and “she was free. She never looked about her; she only darted from the spot. There were lights in the windows of the house; they shone far across the lawn. In an extraordinarily short time—for the distance was considerable—she had moved through the darkness (for she saw nothing) and reached the door. Here only she paused. She looked all about her; she listened a little; then she put her hand on the latch. She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.”

She has finally dispensed with Mr. Goodwood, has given him his fair chance of winning her (and more than fair, since she’s already married and shouldn’t have been listening to him in the first place), and when he is finished, she leaves him, leaves England altogether, and goes back to face her problems, as herself, rather than consigning herself to someone else’s care, for someone else to do her thinking and struggling and feeling for her. It is an abrupt ending, but it is a victory nonetheless.

Hopefully, Osmond gets weary of fighting her and they work out a compromise. It’d be nice to think that she can help Pansy in the end; it’d be even nicer to think that Osmond dies suddenly in an accident (if he knew he were dying, he probably think of ways to spoil things for her and Pansy). Then, she could be kind to Pansy without his pernicious influence, but whatever happens, we have the hint from her thoughts, the flashes of vision that she has on her last trip to England, that she will have a long life, that she will see life to its end, and, based on her actions towards Mr. Goodwood, I trust that she did so with her independence sorely battered, but still intact.

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren

11 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Ending of The Portrait of a Lady

  1. Excellent commentary. I just finished the novel and am still a little shocked, so reading this makes me feel much better about being left with such a cliff-hanger… and about Isobel’s rejection of potential happiness with a man who we know we know she never actually loved.


  2. Thanks for the commentary, Andrea, like you – and everyone else commenting here – I am not quite sure what to think about that ending, so its nice to read someone elses thoughts. For what it’s worth I think the comments from Henrietta Stagpole at the end about “just you wait” are supposed to be a suggestion that Isobel is going to come back to Kaspar Goodwood. However, the line about instantaneously adding “thirty years to his life” seem to be suggesting that she is going to stay with Osmond until he dies, and she will only come back to Kaspar afterwards.

    It seems like a weird thing to end up happening, so let me try and justify it a little bit. I don’t think she is going back to Osmond out of a sense of honour (I don’t think she values honour as highly as Osmond, so it would be out of character to do it for that reason), nor is she doing it to help Pansy (she knows there is little she can do for her). Rather, I think it is out of a sense of feeling responsible for her past actions and choices – throughout the book she is emphasises how seriously and solemnly she considers her commitment in marriage; she doesn’t take it lightly to break that bond. With great independence, comes great responsibility.

    However, I also think she does actually love Goodwood. But she doesn’t want to turn to him out of weakness, or because she has nowhere else to turn. She wants to go to him freely, from her own free choice, once she is ready. That’s why she rejects him at the end of the novel. She will live out the life she has carved out for herself with her own past choices and then, once that is through, she will come back to Goodwood – not because he is strong, and he has finally convinced her, and not because she has to and has nowhere else to go; but entirely because she wants to and chooses to be with him.

    Just my two pennies, of course. Who knows what Henry James was thinking. Thanks for helping me mull things over!


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