The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Chapters 32–33 | Summary



Chapter 32

Caspar Goodwood arrives to see Isabel Archer. She had sent him a letter a month previously, announcing her engagement to Gilbert Osmond. He wishes to see her before she is married, wanting an explanation as to why she changed her mind about never marrying. She says she is as surprised as anyone about her change of heart, and she finds the meeting very uncomfortable. She wishes he would accuse her angrily so she would have the opportunity to defend herself, but Caspar retains his composure. After he leaves without saying goodbye, she cries.

Chapter 33

Isabel tells her aunt of her engagement, expecting her disapproval. Mrs. Touchett identifies Madame Merle as the agent behind the union, but Isabel denies it. Mrs. Touchett says Madame Merle has been two-faced, pretending to her to be an agent to prevent the engagement, all the while really enabling it. Mrs. Touchett asks who has visited Isabel, and Isabel tells her it was an American gentleman, secretly proud of "what Caspar Goodwood had done for her"—spent two weeks traveling to get to her and leaving immediately when she has asked him to.

Ralph Touchett arrives for a visit, and although Isabel knows his mother has told him of her news, he is just as friendly as ever. Isabel is surprised at how sick he looks. Although he doesn't let on to his cousin, Ralph is "shocked and humiliated" by the revelation of her engagement. He can't believe he was wrong about her. Meanwhile, Isabel meets with Osmond every day.


It's not until the middle of Chapter 32 that readers learn Isabel Archer is engaged to Gilbert Osmond and that she sent a letter to Caspar Goodwood to tell him about it. Until that point, readers are left in the dark about why Caspar has traveled across the ocean to visit Isabel—and about why she so dreads his visit. By burying the lead, as it were, the author makes readers wonder what is going on, and their wonder can only increase when they learn of the engagement. Readers ask themselves, along with Caspar, what on Earth could have made Isabel want to change her mind about marriage, and what it is about Osmond that makes him worthy of her. Readers, who know of Osmond's plot and true nature, will also wonder what trick he has played on Isabel to get her to the point of accepting him.

Caspar Goodwood continues to be devoted to Isabel. He is still willing to cross an ocean at a moment's notice just to see her. He still loves her. And in Chapter 33, readers see for the first time this means something to Isabel. She thinks in "perverse admiration" of what he did for her.

In Chapter 33 readers see evidence of Mrs. Touchett's perceptiveness, although even she has been duped by Madame Merle. Mrs. Touchett understands exactly how her friend has orchestrated events and manipulated her in order to achieve her own ends. Readers also see how Ralph Touchett has misjudged his cousin. Or, has Isabel merely been manipulated like everyone else by Madame Merle and Osmond? Readers are left, along with Ralph and others, to wonder what has happened to Isabel that would make her want to marry—and marry this man, in particular.

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