Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1502 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 628 words.)
Summary of the Novel
After her father dies, Isabel Archer, a young American woman, is brought to England by her aunt, Mrs. Touchett. At Gardencourt, the Touchett’s grand estate outside of London, Isabel meets her elderly uncle, Mr. Touchett; Ralph Touchett, her cousin; and Lord Warburton, an English aristocrat. Isabel, a charming, intelligent woman, is an instant success in her new surroundings. Lord Warburton takes an immediate interest in Isabel and within a few weeks after her arrival at Gardencourt, the Englishman proposes to her. But Isabel declines his offer; at this stage of her life, she prefers to remain independent.
A few weeks later, Isabel’s friend, Henrietta Stackpole, a brash American journalist, arrives in England. Isabel learns that Caspar Goodwood, a young businessman from Boston who had been courting Isabel, has also come to Europe. In London, Isabel meets Caspar and he proposes to her. Isabel turns him down, however, for the same reasons she gave Warburton. She is determined to experience life on her own before settling down with any one person. Disappointed, Caspar promises to wait for her for two years. The next day, Isabel and Ralph return to Gardencourt to be with Mr. Touchett; the old man is quite ill and on his deathbed.
At Gardencourt, Isabel meets Madame Merle, an American who has been living in Europe for many years. While Ralph and Mrs. Touchett tend to Daniel Touchett, Madame Merle and Isabel...
(The entire section is 853 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Chapters 1-5 Summary and Analysis
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
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,...
(The entire section is 1773 words.)
Chapters 6-10 Summary and Analysis
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
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 willing to take her on. Consequently, most people who meet her find her interesting and appealing.
Isabel’s American friend, a journalist, Henrietta Stackpole, is also traveling in Europe. Like Isabel, she is an independent woman, and Isabel greatly admires her. Henrietta has heard that her friend is in England, but since Isabel is traveling with her aunt, it may not be possible for them to spend time together.
Isabel likes to observe herself and is always looking for ways to improve her knowledge and her understanding of her situation. She enjoys living at her uncle’s estate and wants to learn everything about England. She spends a considerable amount of time with Daniel Touchett, asking him questions about his...
(The entire section is 1758 words.)
Chapters 11-15 Summary and Analysis
Bob Bantling: Ralph’s bachelor friend from London
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 thought of seeing Caspar again. Henrietta remarks that Isabel has changed since coming to England and is now full of “new ideas.” A few days later, Isabel receives a letter from Caspar, who is anxious to see her again and asks her for permission to visit.
As Isabel is reading Caspar’s letter, Lord Warburton arrives at Gardencourt. She tucks the letter away and strolls through the garden with Warburton, who confesses that he has come just to see her. Since meeting Isabel, only a short time ago, Warburton says, he has been thinking of her constantly. He realizes that, although he has not known Isabel for very long, he has nevertheless fallen in love with her. He asks Isabel to marry him and pleads with her to think it over....
(The entire section is 1758 words.)
Chapters 16-20 Summary and Analysis
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
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 see him or to confront him about his feelings for her. But Caspar persists in declaring his love for Isabel, and he asks for her hand in marriage. Isabel replies, as she did to Lord Warburton, that she does not wish to marry anyone. She asks Caspar to leave her alone, and to not contact her for at least two years. “If there’s one thing in the world I’m fond of,” she says, “it’s my personal independence.”
Caspar agrees to her request, but he says he is willing to wait the two years if Isabel wants to travel and improve herself. Caspar believes, however, that Isabel will get “very sick” of her independence. Isabel is relieved to hear Caspar’s promise, but she promises him “nothing” in return, even though he...
(The entire section is 2009 words.)
Chapters 21-25 Summary and Analysis
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
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 worries about the effect the money will have on her life. Ralph assures her, however, that she will benefit from it, and by the time she leaves San Remo, Isabel finds she is more comfortable with her new wealth and status. She recalls her rejection of both Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood, feeling now a certain measure of pride at her resolve and in the firmness of her decision.
In Chapter 22, we are introduced to Mr. Gilbert Osmond, a widower, and his young daughter Pansy. Pansy, who is 15 years old, has been attending school at a convent in Switzerland. Two nuns have escorted her to Florence to be with her father, who is trying to decide whether to keep Pansy in school. The good-natured nuns, Sister Justine and Mother Catherine,...
(The entire section is 1461 words.)
Chapters 26-30 Summary and Analysis
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 believes Isabel will have many other suitors before she settles on one to marry. Meanwhile, Isabel continues to see Gilbert Osmond, unaware of her family’s concern. She enjoys Osmond’s originality, and she loves Pansy, his sweet, “innocent” daughter.
Mrs. Touchett goes on fretting about her niece’s interest in Osmond; she does not think highly of the man, or his daughter, and she thinks even less of Countess Gemini. We learn that the Countess had been married off, by her mother, to an Italian nobleman who is described as a “low-lived brute.” The Countess herself is considered to be a shrill, egotistical violator of both “truth and taste.” Isabel is willing to tolerate Osmond’s sister, despite the woman’s...
(The entire section is 1365 words.)
Chapters 31-35 Summary and Analysis
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 of action.
Shortly after her return to Florence, Isabel receives a visit from a tense and irritated Caspar Goodwood. He is still in love with Isabel and tells her, “I would rather think of you as dead than as married to another man.” At this point in the story, we learn that Isabel has decided to marry Gilbert Osmond, but she has not revealed the news to anyone but Caspar and Madame Merle. Upon receiving this announcement from Isabel, Caspar sailed immediately for Italy. Angry and upset that Isabel is marrying Osmond, Caspar was determined to see her one more time. Caspar does not understand Isabel’s decision, and Isabel makes no real attempt to defend Osmond or to explain her reasons for marrying him. She says she had...
(The entire section is 1313 words.)
Chapters 36-40 Summary and Analysis
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. Although she cannot guarantee his success, Madame Merle agrees to help Ned. She warns him, though, that Mr. and Mrs. Osmond are frequently at odds. She advises Ned not to pursue the matter until she has made the proper inquiries for him. Madame Merle then tells Ned how much she admires his collection of expensive miniatures, hinting that he might want to reward her for her efforts by presenting her with a little gift. After he speaks to Madame Merle, Ned ignores her advice and rushes off to visit Pansy at the Osmonds’ villa.
When Ned arrives at their home, the Osmonds are entertaining a number of guests. After he receives a cool reception from Gilbert Osmond, Ned asks Isabel for permission to speak to Pansy, but Isabel tells him...
(The entire section is 1615 words.)
Chapters 41-45 Summary and Analysis
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 has turned out. Isabel now believes that she and Osmond truly dislike each other. Isabel despises Osmond’s pretensions and his desire to live as a fashionable member of society. Osmond, we learn, is angry at Isabel because of her independent mind, her many infuriating “ideas,” and her devotion to her cousin Ralph. Isabel understands this and has even tried to change to please her husband, but she will never acquiesce to all of his demands. Resigned to her fate, Isabel has concluded that she will always be unhappy; she has thrown her life away by marrying Gilbert Osmond.
A few days later, Isabel and Pansy attend a grand party together. Osmond stays home, as he usually does, because he doesn’t care for parties or dancing....
(The entire section is 1346 words.)
Chapters 46-50 Summary and Analysis
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 would be a great success there.
After Warburton departs, Osmond says he thinks Isabel has been conspiring against him in order to humiliate him. He believes she is responsible for Warburton’s sudden departure. But Isabel defends herself, claiming that Pansy and Warburton never loved each other. Privately, Isabel is happy about this turn of events, but she is saddened to see how different and “strange” Osmond has become.
After Warburton has left for England, Henrietta and Caspar arrive in Rome. Henrietta immediately sees that Isabel is unhappy. Isabel finally admits to her friend that, yes, she is indeed quite “wretched.” Henrietta wonders why she doesn’t just leave her husband, a notion Isabel refuses to...
(The entire section is 1426 words.)
Chapters 51-55 Summary and Analysis
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 between Isabel and Osmond are severely strained, and she knows how vicious her brother can be. Countess Gemini then reveals a startling secret: Pansy’s mother was not, as everyone believes, Osmond’s deceased first wife. Pansy is really the illegitimate daughter of Osmond and Madame Merle. The two friends had actually been lovers for several years when Madame Merle became pregnant with Pansy. Osmond concocted the story that his first wife died giving birth to Pansy. At the time, Madame Merle had also been married. In order to avoid a scandal, Madame Merle never revealed that she was Pansy’s mother, but she took an intense interest in the welfare of Osmond and their daughter. She believed Isabel would make a suitable stepmother for Pansy...
(The entire section is 2268 words.)