The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Chapters 2–3 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 2

Ralph Touchett is alerted to the presence of a person by his dog, Bunchie, which runs over to a young woman standing in the doorway of the house. She confidently introduces herself as his cousin and says Mrs. Touchett, on their arrival, went immediately to her room. Isabel Archer asks about the other two gentlemen and seems delighted that one of them is a lord, which strikes her as something right out of a novel. Ralph notes that Isabel stands and waits for the men to come to introduce themselves, and he concludes that American girls are "used to a great deal of deference." When Ralph tells Isabel that his father is ill, she expresses concern and walks toward Mr. Touchett to whom Ralph introduces her. Mr. Touchett greets her warmly and says he is sorry he wasn't aware of her arrival in order to welcome her at the door. Isabel takes note of the lovely surroundings and skims over a compliment from Mr. Touchett about her own beauty by asking about the house. Lord Warburton offers to show Isabel his own house. Ralph offers to give her his little dog, to which she has taken a fancy.

Ralph wonders aloud why he has never met his cousin before, and Isabel explains that Mrs. Touchett had a falling out with her father, who recently passed away. She says Mrs. Touchett has been very kind to her in bringing her to Europe. Ralph casually remarks that his mother seems to have adopted Isabel, which she denies, saying she is "not a candidate for adoption" and "very fond of her liberty." Lord Warburton tells Ralph that Isabel is his "idea of an interesting woman."

Chapter 3

The narrator describes Mrs. Touchett as "a person of many oddities" who "had her own way of doing all she did." Her only aim is to please herself. She realized she was very different from her husband early in their marriage, and she chose to live separated from him most of the time, buying a house in Florence while he stayed in England, a country she disliked. Four months before Isabel's arrival in England, Mrs. Touchett traveled to America to look after her investments and meet her nieces with a view to bringing one of her late sister's girls back with her to see Europe. Their meeting in Albany in Isabel's grandmother's home, as well as Isabel's casual upbringing and irregular education, is narrated. Isabel had read a great deal as a child, which served as her primary source of learning, and her education was largely self-directed.

Growing up, Isabel worked to discipline her mind. This was the first time she had met her aunt, whom her father disliked for criticizing the way he was raising the girls after her sister's death. Isabel's older two sisters are married, and Mrs. Touchett knows that little money has been left to Isabel, who is wholly unaware of her financial status. Isabel said she would love to go to Europe with Mrs. Touchett but could not promise to do everything her aunt says. Mrs. Touchett perceived Isabel's intelligence, independence, and boldness.

Analysis

In Chapter 2 the author presents the heroine of the novel in person for the first time. Readers should note that Isabel Archer observes the house and the gentlemen on the lawn long before they are aware of her presence. Isabel then has a measure of agency that she wouldn't have if the men had received her and she had been passively shown around the grounds. She is first observed standing in a doorway, a literal entrance into the world of the novel. The descriptions of her appearance immediately show readers her beauty and youth, and in her first interaction with Ralph Touchett and his dog, readers can see she is an easygoing, expressive, confident young woman. She also seems to be, as Ralph notes, very American in her mannerisms, although readers may question his conclusion that this means she is "used to a great deal of deference." She seems happy enough to walk over to Mr. Touchett when she learns he is an invalid and puts on no airs when she expresses gratitude to her aunt for bringing her to Europe. Isabel is a careful observer who shows great curiosity and interest in her surroundings, including the people she meets, although her comment about meeting a lord because it reminds her of the novels she has read suggests she has little real-world experience. She confirms her aunt's description of her as quite independent when she takes slight offense to Ralph characterizing her relationship with the family as an adopted child, insisting she isn't someone who needs to be adopted. She claims instead to desire liberty. This intelligent, opinionated, genuine, independent American girl is the fulcrum upon which everything in the novel will pivot.

The author gives readers their first hint of the romantic interest Lord Warburton and perhaps Ralph himself have in Isabel in Chapter 2. Almost immediately upon meeting her, Lord Warburton identifies her as the sort of woman he and Mr. Touchett had been discussing in the first chapter. She is someone who might change him. Romance is implied because their conversation was about marrying that type of woman. Ralph seems awkward and overly generous in what may be an attempt to win her friendship.

In Chapter 3 the author acquaints readers more thoroughly with Mrs. Touchett, who the author describes as an "oddity." She is a woman who knows what she wants and doesn't care about conventions in the least. She does what she wants, and expresses her opinions and criticisms with complete confidence. She has chosen to live independently from her husband, whom she doesn't seem to really like, and she also takes care of her own investments, even though he is a banker. It is perhaps this independence that makes her appreciate the company of her liberty-loving, outspoken niece, Isabel.

Also in Chapter 3 readers learn Isabel is in a vulnerable position. She is young, relatively uneducated, single, and orphaned, and she has very little money. Without a means of supporting herself (as job options for women were almost unheard of, at least in the middle class), she must find a means of support. This would most often mean she must marry well or depend upon a family member. Isabel seems happily unaware of this reality, which speaks to her naïveté. It also foreshadows the events of the novel. A person who fails to recognize her own vulnerability is that much more vulnerable.

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