Study Guide

The Portrait of a Lady

by Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Upon the death of her father, Isabel Archer had been visited by her aunt, Mrs. Touchett, who considers her so attractive that she decides to give her the advantage of a more cosmopolitan experience. Isabel is quickly carried off to Europe so she might see something of the world of culture and fashion. On the day the two women arrive at the Touchett home in England, Isabel’s sickly young cousin, Ralph Touchett, and his father are taking tea in the garden with their friend, Lord Warburton. The young nobleman, who had just been confessing his boredom with life, is much taken with the American girl’s grace and lively manner.

Isabel had barely settled at Gardencourt, her aunt’s home, when she received a letter from an American friend, Henrietta Stackpole, a journalist who is writing a series of articles on the sights of Europe. At Ralph’s invitation, Henrietta comes to Gardencourt to visit Isabel and obtain material for her writing. Soon after Henrietta’s arrival, Isabel hears from another American friend and a would-be suitor, Caspar Goodwood, who had followed her abroad and learned her whereabouts from Henrietta. Isabel, irritated by his aggressiveness, decides not to answer his letter.

On the day Isabel receives the letter from Goodwood, Lord Warburton proposes to her. Not wishing to seem indifferent to the honor of his proposal, she asks for time to consider it, but she decides finally that she will not be able to marry the young Englishman because she wishes to see considerably more of the world before she marries. She is also afraid that marriage to Warburton, although he is a model of kindness and thoughtfulness, might prove stifling.

Because Isabel had not seen London on her journey with Mrs. Touchett and since it is on Henrietta Stackpole’s itinerary, the two young women, accompanied by Ralph Touchett, visit the capital. Henrietta soon makes the acquaintance of a Mr. Bantling, who begins to squire her around. When Caspar Goodwood visits Isabel at her hotel, she again refuses him, though when he persists, she agrees that he could ask for her hand again in two years.

While the party is in London, a telegram comes from Gardencourt, informing them that old Mr. Touchett is seriously ill of gout and his wife much alarmed. Isabel and Ralph leave on the afternoon train. Henrietta remains under the escort of her new friend.

During the time Mr. Touchett lay dying and his family is preoccupied, Isabel spends a great deal of time with Madame Merle, an old friend of Mrs. Touchett, who had come to Gardencourt to spend a few days. She and Isabel are thrown together a great deal and exchange many confidences. Isabel admires the older woman for her ability to amuse herself, for her skill at needlework, painting, and the piano, and for her ability to accommodate herself to any social situation. For her part, Madame Merle speaks enviously of Isabel’s youth and intelligence and laments the life that has left her, at middle age, a widow with no children and no visible success in life.

Isabel’s uncle dies, leaving her, at his son’s instigation, half of his fortune. Ralph, impressed with his young cousin’s brilliance, had persuaded his father that she should be given the opportunity to fly as far and as high as she might. Ralph knows he cannot live long because of his pulmonary illness, and his own legacy is enough to let him live in comfort.

As quickly as she can, Mrs. Touchett sells her London house and takes Isabel to Paris with her. Ralph goes south for the winter to preserve what is left of his health. In Paris, the new heir is introduced to many of her aunt’s friends among American...

(The entire section is 1502 words.)

The Portrait of a Lady Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Portrait of a Lady is James’s first unarguably major work. Technically his third novel (though the early Watch and Ward, published in 1871, is by general agreement unworthy of mention), it represents a quantum leap in sophistication and moral complexity over Roderick Hudson and The American.

Thematically continuous with Daisy Miller in that it treats the perils of an innocent American woman abroad, the novel probes the psychology of its heroine, Isabel Archer, to infinitely greater depths than does the earlier novella. The reader first encounters Isabel Archer at the English country house of the Touchetts. Isabel’s aunt, Lydia Touchett, has brought her from the United States after the death of Isabel’s father. Pursued by the feckless British aristocrat Lord Warburton and the crude American Caspar Goodwood, Isabel is also admired by her invalid cousin, Ralph Touchett, who gives her an enormous bequest from his father’s estate.

While visiting her aunt in Italy, Isabel meets Madame Merle, an elegant, cultured woman who maintains a respectable life by imposing on the hospitality of her wealthy acquaintances. Madame Merle introduces Isabel to Gilbert Osmond, an American expatriate living in quiet retirement in a Roman villa with his daughter Pansy. Disarmed by Osmond’s cultivation and taken with Pansy, Isabel accepts Osmond’s offer of marriage, only to discover that he has effectively imprisoned her and, to her immense dismay, that he was formerly Madame...

(The entire section is 628 words.)

The Portrait of a Lady Summary

Summary of the Novel
After her father dies, Isabel Archer, a young American woman, is brought to England by her aunt, Mrs....

(The entire section is 853 words.)

The Portrait of a Lady Summary and Analysis

Chapters 1-5 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Mr. Daniel Touchett: a wealthy American banker who now resides in England

Ralph Touchett: Mr. Touchett’s ailing son

Lord Warburton: a wealthy English aristocrat and close friend of Ralph Touchett

Mrs. Touchett: Mr. Touchett’s wife and Ralph’s mother. She has arrived from America with her niece, Isabel Archer

Isabel Archer: a young American woman who is visiting England for the first time. She is Mr. and Mrs. Touchett’s niece, and Ralph’s cousin

Lilian Ludlow: Isabel’s sister who lives with her husband and children in New York City

Edmund Ludlow: a New York lawyer, married to Lilian

Edith Archer: Isabel’s other sister. She lives in the American West with her engineer husband

Caspar Goodwood: a young American businessman who is in love with Isabel

Summary
The novel begins with a description of Gardencourt, an historic English country estate. Gardencourt is centuries old and was purchased by Daniel Touchett, a “shrewd American banker.” Mr. Touchett is retired now and is an elderly man, enjoying his old age living at Gardencourt with his son, Ralph. We first meet Mr. Touchett in the garden where he sits, wrapped in a shawl, listening to Ralph and a friend, Lord Warburton, discuss their mutual problem of being young, bored, and rich. Warburton, handsome and elegant, stands out in sharp contrast to Ralph, who is thin and ungainly.

As the conversation continues, the old man playfully warns Ralph and Warburton that political and social changes are inevitable, and these changes may upset their current lifestyle. He suggests that what Lord Warburton needs is a pretty woman to occupy his time. Warburton replies that he will settle down only when he finds an intelligent and interesting woman to marry. Then old Touchett reveals that his wife is returning from America with her niece, a young woman none of the men have ever met. The old man teases Warburton, warning him not to fall in love with his American niece.

Later that afternoon, Mrs. Touchett and the niece, Isabel Archer, arrive at Gardencourt. Ralph meets the young woman first and he is immediately captivated by his charming cousin. Mrs. Touchett, who has not seen her husband for a year, has retired to her room and will not see anyone until she is rested and refreshed. We learn that Mrs. Touchett had never met her niece before; the old lady had had a falling out with Isabel’s father, who was Mrs. Touchett’s sister’s husband. Consequently, Mrs. Touchett never visited Isabel’s home in the United States. Mrs. Touchett’s sister died when Isabel was very young, and Isabel was raised by her father and her grandmother. After Isabel’s father died last year, Mrs. Touchett decided to visit her family in America.

Mrs. Touchett has not been home for a year, and it is not unusual for her to be away from England for long periods of time. She is not overly fond of her husband, or of the English way of life. She lives abroad, in Italy, for 11 months each year and only returns to England to visit her family for a month before she leaves again. Her last trip was to America, where she found Isabel living in her grandmother’s house in Albany, New York.

Ralph strolls through the gardens with Isabel. Trying to make a joke, Ralph asks her if his mother has “adopted” her, but Isabel insists that no one will adopt her. “I’m very fond of my liberty,” she tells him. Isabel quickly reveals herself to be an independent, intelligent young woman. When Ralph introduces Isabel to Lord Warburton, the Englishman takes an immediate interest in Ralph’s attractive cousin.

We learn that, as a little girl, Isabel was not forced to go to school. She had attended a nearby elementary school for one day and then decided the strict regimen wasn’t for her. She chose instead to spend her time reading books in the “office” room of her grandmother’s house. Isabel is described as being very independent and having an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Mrs. Touchett discovered Isabel in the office, reading, when she arrived at the house in Albany. The two women were immediately at odds, but decided they liked each other anyway.

Isabel’s two sisters, Lilian and Edith, are both married...

(The entire section is 1773 words.)

Chapters 6-10 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Henrietta Stackpole: Isabel’s opinionated friend from America

Miss Molyneux: Lord Warburton’s sister

Mildred Molyneux: Warburton’s youngest sister

Vicar of Lockleigh: Lord Warburton’s brother; a burly ex-wrestler who is now a clergyman

Summary
Isabel is described as a young woman with a “high spirit.” She is quite determined, has strong opinions, and thinks rather highly of herself. Isabel looks forward to learning as much as she can about the world and hopes she will have the opportunity to prove herself when she is confronted with difficult situations. She is also quick to engage in debate on any subject, with anyone who is...

(The entire section is 1758 words.)

Chapters 11-15 Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Bob Bantling: Ralph’s bachelor friend from London

Summary
Mrs. Touchett tells Isabel that she does not like Henrietta and describes the American journalist as an “adventuress and a bore.” Later, Henrietta argues with Mrs. Touchett about the relative merits of American hotels and American servants; Isabel’s aunt finds both lacking when compared to those found in Europe. Henrietta bluntly tells Mrs. Touchett that she thinks her comments are offensive.

Henrietta tells Isabel that she and Caspar Goodwood sailed to England on the same ship. She encourages Isabel to renew her acquaintance with Caspar, but Isabel is unhappy that he has come to England. She dreads the...

(The entire section is 1758 words.)

Chapters 16-20 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Madame Serena Merle: a friend of the Touchetts who meets Isabel at Gardencourt

Edward (Ned) Rosier: a young American, living in Paris, who had been acquainted with Isabel’s family
in the United States

Mr. and Mrs. Luce: an American expatriate couple who are living in Paris

Mr. Hilary: Daniel Touchett’s attorney

Summary
That evening, alone in her hotel, Isabel receives an unexpected visit from Caspar Goodwood. He tells Isabel he’s come to see her because Henrietta wrote to him, informing him that Isabel would be alone at the hotel that evening. Isabel is incensed to hear this and disturbed by Caspar’s visit. She has no desire to...

(The entire section is 2009 words.)

Chapters 21-25 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Gilbert Osmond: an old friend of Madame Merle’s who is living with his daughter in Italy

Pansy Osmond: Gilbert Osmond’s young daughter

Sister Catherine: a nun from the convent in Switzerland where Pansy attends school

Sister Justine: another nun from the Swiss convent

Countess Gemini: Gilbert Osmond’s sister

Summary
Isabel travels with Mrs. Touchett to San Remo, Italy, to visit Ralph. Isabel is pleased to see Ralph, but she wants to know why his father left her so much money. Without revealing his own involvement, Ralph tells her it was because old Mr. Touchett liked her so much. Isabel is pleased to hear this, but she...

(The entire section is 1461 words.)

Chapters 26-30 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Over the next few weeks, Osmond visits Isabel at her aunt’s villa five more times. Disturbed by Osmond’s interest in her niece, Mrs. Touchett voices her concern to Madame Merle, who claims to know nothing about it. Mrs. Touchett, however, believes Osmond is more interested in her niece’s money than he is in Isabel herself. Madame Merle tells Mrs. Touchett she will try to find out if Osmond is honestly expressing his feelings for Isabel. Mrs. Touchett can’t understand how Isabel could turn down both an English lord and a wealthy American businessman, yet seem so fascinated by a “middle-aged widower” of limited means. Ralph agrees with his mother, but he doesn’t think Osmond is much of a threat; he...

(The entire section is 1365 words.)

Chapters 31-35 Summary and Analysis

Summary
After several months of travel with her aunt, Isabel returns to Florence. Standing by a window in the Touchett home, Isabel recalls the events of the past year: She had been traveling first with Mrs. Touchett, and then her sister Lily, who had come with her family from America to visit Isabel. After saying good-bye to Lily, her children, and husband in London, Isabel traveled to the Middle East with Madame Merle. When she finally returned to Rome, she was reunited with Gilbert Osmond. Osmond stayed in Rome and visited Isabel and Madame Merle frequently for the next three weeks. Isabel then decided to return to Florence to stay with Ralph and Mrs. Touchett. Now, back in Florence, Isabel considers her next course...

(The entire section is 1313 words.)

Chapters 36-40 Summary and Analysis

Summary
A few years have passed. We learn that Isabel has married Osmond and they have recently lost their only child, a baby boy. The Osmonds are living in Rome with Pansy, who has grown into an attractive and charming 19-year-old woman.

Edward (Ned) Rosier, the American we had been introduced to earlier in the novel, has traveled to Rome to ask for Pansy’s hand in marriage. Ned met Pansy earlier, in the summer, when they were both staying at a resort in Switzerland. Now, in Rome, Ned approaches Madame Merle and asks her to intervene on his behalf. He believes Pansy loves him and thinks Isabel will not object to the marriage. Ned is wary, however, of Pansy’s father; he doubts Osmond will approve....

(The entire section is 1615 words.)

Chapters 41-45 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Isabel believes that Warburton would be a good match for Pansy, and she thinks the marriage would make Osmond happy. Although she is unhappy being married to Osmond, Isabel would like to satisfy herself that she had done all she could to please her husband. When Isabel discusses the matter with Osmond, he agrees that Warburton is the right choice for Pansy. He is annoyed at Isabel, though; it appears to him that she herself still has an interest in Warburton. In any case, Osmond hopes Isabel will use her influence to encourage Warburton to propose to Pansy.

Sitting alone, after her conversation with Osmond, Isabel wonders if Lord Warburton still loves her, and she reflects on how badly her marriage...

(The entire section is 1346 words.)

Chapters 46-50 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Osmond is concerned about Warburton’s true intentions toward his daughter. The Englishman has yet to write the letter he mentioned to Isabel, and now Osmond is worrying that Warburton will never keep his promise. Osmond bitterly accuses his wife of interfering in the matter, a charge she quickly denies. As they are discussing the matter, Warburton suddenly arrives, finding Osmond and Isabel in the midst of their heated discussion. Warburton tells them he has come to say farewell; he must return to England to attend to an important government matter. It quickly becomes apparent that Warburton has no intention of proposing to Pansy. He does invite the Osmonds to England, however, telling them he thinks Pansy...

(The entire section is 1426 words.)

Chapters 51-55 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Isabel receives word from her aunt that Ralph is gravely ill. If she wishes to see her cousin before he dies, Mrs. Touchett writes, Isabel should come to England immediately. Isabel quickly makes plans to leave Rome, although Osmond disapproves of the trip and would prefer it if Isabel remained in Rome. Ralph, he says, means nothing to him, and he even doubts that Ralph is really dying. Isabel considers Osmond’s attitude loathsome; all Osmond is concerned about is keeping up the appearance of a happy marriage. He cares nothing for Isabel’s feelings.
Terribly upset by Osmond’s remarks, Isabel discusses the matter with Countess Gemini. The Countess is not surprised by the conflict. She knows that relations...

(The entire section is 2268 words.)