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The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Chapters 18–19 | Summary



Chapter 18

When Ralph Touchett and Isabel Archer return to Gardencourt, Isabel finds a stranger playing the piano with great skill. She is Madame Merle, a friend of Mrs. Touchett who has come to visit. Originally from Brooklyn, Madame Merle now lives in Europe. Mrs. Touchett and Ralph both praise Madame Merle as a clever woman of many talents. Ralph reveals he was once in love with her, but she was married at the time. He believes she is now widowed.

Mr. Touchett is very ill, but he makes a point of speaking to Ralph about his inheritance and to urge Ralph to marry Isabel. Ralph says he doesn't love Isabel, although he would if she was not his cousin and if he was not so sickly. He also wishes Isabel to have her freedom, including freedom from the need to marry for money. Ralph convinces his father to change his will, leaving half of what Ralph would have inherited to Isabel instead. Mr. Touchett agrees, somewhat reluctantly, wondering if it might attract fortune hunters, but Ralph says that is a remote risk he is willing to take in order to see Isabel with the means to pursue her dreams.

Chapter 19

Madame Merle and Isabel form an intimate friendship. Isabel admires Madame Merle's cultivation and civility. Mrs. Touchett says Madame Merle is "one of the most brilliant women in Europe." Madame Merle tells Isabel she feels sorry for Ralph. She finds him indolent, without occupation, and she knows another man like him, a Gilbert Osmond, who lives in Italy and is very clever but has "no career, no name, no position, no fortune," although he does have a lovely daughter. She promises to introduce Isabel to Gilbert Osmond. Isabel confides in Madame Merle about the proposals she refused, and Madame Merle advises her to take a worldly view. Madame Merle leaves Gardencourt.

Isabel receives a letter from Henrietta Stackpole who was never actually invited to Lady Pensil's home. Mr. Bantling is urging her to go to Paris instead and offers to see her off. Henrietta says she will wait for Isabel to join her there. Isabel notes this plan is "unconventional," but denies Ralph's suggestion that it is improper in any way.

Mr. Touchett dies.


The author introduces the character of Madame Merle, a somewhat mysterious middle-aged woman. Readers learn little of her past except that she is an American who prefers to live abroad. She is very sophisticated, with many cultivated talents, and seems to be well connected. She takes an interest in Isabel Archer, forming a close friendship with the young lady and giving her plenty of advice. This isn't the last readers will see of Madame Merle.

In Chapter 18 readers learn that Ralph Touchett wishes he could be with Isabel, but he is too selfless to allow himself to love her. He tells his father he isn't in love with Isabel, but that he would be if circumstances were different. What keeps him from falling in love with her are his concerns over their relationship as cousins and his chronic illness. He also knows she doesn't want to tie herself down to anyone at the moment. He denies whatever desires he may have or be inclined to have to put her needs ahead of his own, literally halving his own inheritance to make sure she will want for nothing. Readers may not believe he is not in love with her, after all.

In Chapters 18 and 19 Henry James includes the two acts that will spell the downfall of Isabel Archer, although that isn't at all clear for the moment. First, well-intentioned Ralph convinces Mr. Touchett to leave Isabel more money, offering half of his own inheritance. The author foreshadows Isabel's doom in Mr. Touchett's concern that leaving her so much money might make her the prey of fortune hunters. Second, Madame Merle promises to introduce Isabel to Gilbert Osmond. Readers will later realize these two chapters are the fulcrum of the novel, changing it from a young woman's hopeful, romantic exploration of the continent to a sinister tragedy. However, the storm clouds are merely in the distance at this point, and no one seems to be aware of them as yet—no one except Madame Merle.

Readers see more evidence of Henrietta Stackpole's independence and her relationship with Mr. Bantling. Henrietta thinks nothing of traveling with a gentleman or of staying alone in Paris, two things that would not have been done by a single woman at the time. Isabel is convinced the relationship between the two is innocent, but Ralph's doubts represent a more conventional viewpoint.

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