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She is the perfect Henry James heroine, embodying all of the major preoccupations of his writing career. As such, she is also a mix of unlike elements. Isabel Archer is both innocent and knowing, even as the untutored, naive American, she marries the most European of re-made Americans, she loves liberty and yet she marries a man who would guarantee her constraint, and she has a strong distaste for the emptiness of conventionality while submitting to it readily and consistently.
When Isabel Archer is first presented, she is sitting in the library of an all but abandoned family house trying to carry out an ambitious plan to read through all the German philosophers. She finds it difficult to muster the necessary discipline to accomplish this task. When her aunt arrives and decides to take Isabel back to Europe with her, Isabel drops the study of German philosophy without a backward glance. However, in her views of Europe and of what it means to be a woman of her age, expected to marry and marry well, she operates out of a romantic conception that has its roots less in the philosophers and more in the popular novelists. When her friend, Henrietta Stackpole warns her against the decadent Europeans and encourages her to return to her American simplicity, Isabel admits that she has a sense of her life as a romantic carriage ride through a dark night into the mists of the unknown. While this kind of romanticism seems a likely spur to adventurousness on the part of a young woman, it is also, paradoxically, the path to the most conventional of institutions, marriage.
The reader might feel the anti-climax that Ralph Touchett feels when Isabel announces her plan to marry Gilbert Osmond, but Henry James has prepared for this decision with a number of occurrences in the plot. For instance, when Isabel arrives at Gardencourt in her guise as the New Woman, independent and straight-talking, she comes sponsored by the most conservative of people, Mrs. Touchett. When Isabel wants to stay up talking to Ralph Touchett and Lord Warburton, Mrs. Touchett tells her it is not proper for a young woman her age to stay up alone with two men her age. Isabel is startled at the unexpected constraint on her freedom, but readily complies with her auntís insistence that she go to her room and goes even further: she asks her aunt to please tell her any time she is being unconventional so she can decide whether to correct the mistake. She carries on the remainder of her unmarried life in strict accordance with the patriarchal constraints of the liberty of young women.
Finally, Isabelís seduction by Gilbert Osmond seems to be the easiest task this man has had to accomplish in life. His main difficulty is in letting her go on with her ideas instead of telling her that, for him, so many ideas are unattractive in a fiancée or wife. With Gilbert Osmond, Isabel Archer is submissive from the start. She is quiet when she is usually vivacious. She is an intellectual follower when she usually fancies herself a leader. She finds the conservative upbringing of Pansy charming, finding Pansyís complete passivity and submissiveness attractive and laudable, and assuring Pansy that she is submitting to the kindliest of men who knows whatís best for her.
The question arises as to why Isabel goes from being a lover of liberty to a lover of the severest constraint upon women. Perhaps liberty frightened or bored Isabel and after tasting it for a year or two, she desired stasis and conventionality. More likely, the kernel of her decision to settle down with the most conventional of men was present with Isabel in her library in Albany.