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The dominant theme of The Portrait of a Lady is the difficulty negotiating between individual liberty and the constraints of social conventions. Isabel Archer enjoys an extraordinarily permissive childhood in which she is free to read what she wishes and do as she wishes. Her lack of familial constraints as well as her extensive, though informal study of Romantic philosophy build in her a sense of her righteous claim to individual liberty. However, she also respects the social need for conventions and submits to them even when she doesnít understand their rationale.
One of Henry Jamesís recurring Themes is the many differences between American and European customs. He usually casts Americans as innocent, though slightly barbaric, incapable of the subtle refinements of European culture, but charmingly simple and straight-forward in their belief in American superiority. He usually casts Europeans as slightly sinister in their often perverse valuation of conventionality and artfulness over individual merit and naturalness.
The mood of the novel is usually a distanced one of social observation. The novel contains a few intensely emotional scenes, but, for the most part, it is dominated by a tone of speculation. The dominant question concerns what its heroine will do in the new situations she encounters. The viewpoint that most expresses this mood is Ralph Touchettís. Ralph is a spectator, but a loving one. He stands back and watches Isabel Archer go through life, at points with hopeful anticipation and at points with saddened resignation, but he always stands back speculatively and watches.