Mary Cassatt, The Letter

Henry James: The Portrait of a Lady

Instructor: Rebecca Ariel Porte
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

Can a woman “suffice to herself and be happy”? This is one of the questions at the heart of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881), which tells the story of Isabel Archer, an American navigating the constraints of European society in the late 19th century. First serialized in The Atlantic Monthly and MacMillan’s Magazine, this novel of James’s middle period displays an exhilarating combination of high style and psychological subtlety. It paints a portrait not only of Isabel Archer (the “lady” of the title), but also of confrontations between old customs and new norms, innocence and experience, America and Europe, good and evil, kindness and cruelty, class and possibility, gender and agency, and the consolations and frustrations of art. From its interest in generosity and missed chances to its complex reflections on frustrated desire, opportunism and sadistic manipulation, The Portrait of a Lady offers in panoramic scope the full range of contradictions that express themselves in modern experience.

In this course, an introduction to James’s fiction via one of his most famous novels, we will ask: What is realism and what is psychological realism? What kinds of experiments was James about when it came to prose style, to fiction, to the theory of the novel? Why write as James wrote? What were James’s relationships to decadence, modernism, and other contemporary movements? How does Portrait treat gender and sexuality? How does it handle class and social stricture? What should we make of the novel’s interest in secrets, lies, and schemes? How should we understand the novel’s profoundly ambiguous ending? Why read Henry James in context and why read him now? Although our primary text will be Portrait, supplementary readings will include selections from James’s shorter fiction, responses from his contemporaries, and a variety of critical supplements. These readings are likely to draw on some of the following: Joseph Conrad, Leon Edel, Jonathan Freedman, Dorothy Hale, William James, Georg Lukács, Edward Said, Eve Sedgwick, Ian Watt, and Edith Wharton.

Course Schedule

Monday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
November 16 — December 07, 2020
4 weeks


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