Originally serialised in the Atlantic Monthly between 1880 and 1881 then published in book form later in the year, The Portrait of a Lady was certainly the finest novel in James' early career. The plot centres upon a young American heiress, Isabel Archer and her interactions in Europe with two scheming compatriots, Gilbert Osmond, whom she marries, and Madame Merle who, it is revealed, has worked with Osmond to secure the marriage and Archer's fortune.
The novel marks a profound step away from the idea of plot, towards the notion of character development with plotting merely the means as opposed to the end. James' idea is that resolution comes about not through conveniently tying up the threads of a novel, but by rounding out the strengths of the character under study. That the novel displays a certain ambiguity at the close is evidence enough that this was James' purpose.