The Portrait of a Lady

I call people rich when they’re able to meet the requirements of their imagination.

— Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady, 1881

I am in the midst of rereading this book. It’s one of my favorites. Henry James has such of a way of delving into the human condition that I come out of the book feeling like I have never properly known anyone, and neither have I had a real meaningful conversation. I love knowing James’ characters, and I adore the things they say to one another. The quote above is something Ralph said to Isabel. I’d like to write a bit to figure out what it means.

Both Ralph and Isabel are wealthy, thanks to the money left to them after the death of Ralph’s father. So what does it mean to meet the requirements of your imagination? I think it means being able to make your dreams come true. Throughout the book Isabel is accredited with much imagination. Although she doesn’t do much, it is what she doesn’t do that makes her interesting. She doesn’t accept the first (or second) marriage proposal that comes her way. She doesn’t want to settle down until she has lived life, experienced things, seen people, gone places.

What I like about Isabel is the way she is always moving forward. She doesn’t go back to her old life in the States. She doesn’t regret things. She’s always looking to the future, accepting the present, moving onward. That requires imagination.


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