The Portrait of a Lady is often discussed as a novel of manners, a sociological study of the contrasts in mores and styles of Americans and Europeans. It's also described as a psychological novel, charting the complex interplay between the minds of its major characters and exploring relentlessly and finely the consciousness of its heroine, Isabel. But these characterizations, while not entirely mistaken, obscure a central characteristic of the novel: The Portrait of a Lady is a fairy tale, or as James put it in the 1906 preface, a "fable". With whatever authority he presents the psyches and social milieus of his Europeans and Americans and Europeanized Americans, and however carefully observed the locales?and the authority and care are absolute?the project of The Portrait of a Lady is about as close to a work of social science as it is to a conventional potboiler. Americans and Europeans, in the novel, are types: As Leon Edel, James's great biographer and critic, has it, "In James' fiction, Americans are often presented as if they still possess the innocence of Eden;" and furthermore, "it is striking how often the adjective 'corrupt' precedes the word 'Europe'" (article in Scribner's American Writers, Vol. 2, pp. 320-323). As they appear in The Portrait of a Lady, these representatives of the old and new worlds are rendered vividly, and they may feel to the reader momentarily real, but in the end they are figures in a novelist's dreams and meditations; they are as conceptual as they are concrete. Similarly, "American girl" is not a category of mind or state of consciousness; it is a kind of representational ideal. In the author's terms, the phrase "American girl" is almost redundant. Both the words conjure innocence and (in their way) beauty. Both words also auger doom. If, as Edel argues, America is an Eden, then a fall will come, as surely as a girl will become a woman or die. The phrase "American girl" also carries with it a hint of contradiction, a fight between the two words: While an American is liberated, a girl is subject to all kinds of boundaries and limits. "American girl," then, is a phrase that conjures a story, a cheerful two words that together gather storm clouds. American girls are doubly doomed among the limits of European society; an American girl going to Europe is a pure white lamb bound to be ruined.
The Portrait of a Lady bears the details and precision of psychological and social realism, but the novel is structured like a kind of old-fashioned legend. We have an ordinary girl, Isabel, who on venturing into Europe becomes a sort of princess, an heiress related to her uncle, the banker Daniel Touchett, who in his kindness, power, and benevolence is as good as a king. Once in this strange land, Isabel is wooed by two Princes Charming, paragons of American and British manhood: Caspar Goodwood, the inventor-athlete-businessman, and Lord Warburton, the nobleman-politician-reformer. But she marries neither and is instead entranced by Madame Merle, a kind of witch?an evil sorceress of society and good manners?who marries her off to the "sterile dilettante," as Ralph Touchett puts it, Gilbert Osmond, an ogre of high aesthetics, who in the end does not find Isabel's beauty up to the mark. This story is beauty and the beast in its most primitive form: the princess enslaved by a monster. But the monster in The Portrait of a Lady is a monster of aesthetics; Osmond is a painter, a collector of fine things, a disparager of vulgarity. And Isabel is no ordinary beauty: She has beauty based in character, in potentiality, in innocence, and in liberty of mind?in her being an American and a girl. This novel is not just a beautiful story; it is a story about beauty, a story in which the destruction of beauty is threatened by beauty's great admirer.
The book opens with a meditation on a kind of perfect scene, Ralph and Daniel Touchett, along with Lord Warburton, taking tea on the lawn of Gardencourt. The time of day is aestheticized, "the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon," which the narrator tells us "could be only an eternity of pleasure." The house is aestheticized, even its brick face, "with the complexion of which time and the weather had played all sorts of pictorial tricks, only, however, to improve and refine it." Daniel Touchett, for his part, has an "aesthetic passion" for Gardencourt, and even Touchett's "beautiful collie dog" gets into the rapture, "watching the master's face almost as tenderly as the master took in the still more magisterial physiognomy of the house." This sort of highly aestheticized contemplation and pictorial scene-setting is replete throughout the novel, notably at the introduction to Osmond's villa in Florence, where the narrator describes "a small group that might have been described by a painter as composing well." The windows of Osmond's place, we are told, are "extremely architectural." Osmond's beard is "cut in the manner of the portraits of the sixteenth century," and he is described as a "gentleman who studied style." Not only are the settings beautiful, but these beauties are contemplated by a narrator whose precision and delicacy and aesthetic passions are rivaled only by his characters'.