Parental Roles in The Portrait of a Lady: Matches and Mismatches
The doctrine of the ‘separation of spheres’, prevalent in 19th century Victorian England, attributed to women the roles of obeying daughters, submissive wives and dutiful mothers. Such roles were to be played within the narrow confines of the house, symbolized by the domestic, private sphere. The ideal woman, the ‘angel in the house’, was seen as a pure, pious, weak, dependent, fragile, self-sacrificing wife and mother. She was bestowed the major role in raising the children and taking care of the house. Men, the bread-winners, belonged to the social or public sphere and were seen as active, independent, strong and dominant.
The Portrait of a Lady, belonging to James’ early period of creation and regarded as one of his best novels, introduces a wide gallery of feminine and masculine characters: sisters and brothers, wives and husbands, mothers and fathers. Thus, Isabel Archer, Madame Merle, Lydia Touchett, Mrs. Osmond and Amy Gemini, apart from other roles played in the novel, appear, to a greater or lesser extent as mothers in James’ text. On the other hand, Daniel Tracy Touchett, Gilbert Osmond and Isabel’s father are attributed the role of paternal figures.
To what extent do these characters comply with the parental roles attributed by the patriarchal 19th century Victorian society? How motherly are the mothers and how fatherly are the fathers that populate James’ novel? The paper analyses the characters in The Portrait of a Lady in terms of their conformity to and/or departure from the mother and father roles prescribed by the society of the time.
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