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The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Chapters 20–21 | Summary



Chapter 20

Madame Merle meets Mrs. Touchett a few weeks later as she prepares to sell the Touchett home in London. Madame Merle learns of Isabel Archer's inheritance. She believes Isabel has cleverly secured the fortune, but Mrs. Touchett denies Isabel had any such designs. Madame Merle envies the late Mr. Touchett's estate, from which she does not benefit.

Mrs. Touchett and Isabel travel to Paris, where Isabel meets Mrs. Touchett's friends, including Edward Rosier whom Isabel had actually met as a youth when traveling with her father. Isabel wonders about the aimless lives of these expatriates in Paris who insist the pleasure of living there is point enough. Henrietta Stackpole has been enjoying exploring Paris with Mr. Bantling, and the two have become quite close. The narrator says the two practically lived together for four weeks. Isabel believes the two are deluding themselves about the nature of their attraction. Henrietta is worried Isabel's new fortune will enable her romantic proclivities in a way that could lead to harm.

Chapter 21

Mrs. Touchett and Isabel visit Ralph Touchett in Southern Italy. Mrs. Touchett explains that now Isabel is rich, she will be excused from strictly following some social norms applied to the less fortunate. She may travel more independently if she wishes. Isabel asks if Ralph thinks her fortune will be bad for her, like Henrietta does. Ralph says she should stop thinking so much and "spread your wings." She wants to make wise choices with her money.

Isabel recalls her two suitors, remembering that Caspar Goodwood has promised to contact her again in a year-and-a-half. She thinks he will be just as devoted to her then, but she would not be surprised if Lord Warburton has become interested in someone else.


The true nature of Madame Merle's character begins to show itself in Chapter 20, and it's not pretty. Instead of feeling sorrow for her friend's loss or joyful at Isabel Archer's good fortune, Madame Merle feels envy. She wants a portion of Mr. Touchett's estate, even though she has no right to any of it. She also assumes the worst of Isabel, thinking Isabel has somehow tricked her uncle into leaving her a huge sum of money.

Henrietta Stackpole and Mr. Bantling continue their unconventional relationship in Chapter 20, flouting social norms by basically cohabiting as they explore Paris for weeks on end without a chaperone. Although Isabel still thinks the two are innocent of any real wrongdoing, she suspects the two are fooling themselves about the real nature of their relationship.

In Chapter 21 Isabel reflects on her suitors. Although it will be another year-and-a-half before Caspar Goodwood has promised to contact her again, Isabel doubts any other woman will tempt Caspar into abandoning his feelings for her. On the other hand, she would not be surprised to learn Lord Warburton had become engaged to some English gentlewoman. Readers will learn the accuracy of Isabel's predictions in coming chapters.

In Chapters 20 and 21 Isabel comes to grips with her new wealth. In light of the different perspectives of Henrietta, who thinks the money is dangerous to Isabel, Ralph, who thinks the money is empowering, and Mrs. Touchett, who knows the power of money to bend social expectations, Isabel seems to take Ralph's advice to understand the money as fuel for her exploration and independence. She is ready to fly.

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