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The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Chapters 4–5 | Summary



Chapter 4

Continuing the flashback to Mrs. Touchett's trip, Lilian Ludlow, Isabel Archer's eldest sister, is introduced. She thought Mrs. Touchett's plan to take Isabel to Europe would suit Isabel perfectly. Mr. Ludlow, on the other hand, thought Isabel already too "original." Isabel reflected on the opportunity she now faces: she has had many good opportunities, including traveling abroad once with her father. The narrator says her father "squandered a fortune" and left the care of his girls mostly to governesses and their grandmother. It was his desire to live freely, and his carelessness with money resulted in so little of it being left for Isabel. She remembers him fondly, however, oblivious to his faults. Isabel recalled how her reputation as the "intellectual" sister scared off suitors who came to visit her pretty sister Edith. As Isabel was reflecting on these things, a man arrived to see her. Caspar Goodwood "was the finest man she had ever seen." It is believed he wants to marry Isabel, but he leaves their meeting disappointed. According to the narrator, Caspar was not "a man weakly to accept defeat."

Chapter 5

Returning to the present, the narrator says Ralph Touchett's father is the more maternal of his parents, while his mother is more paternal. Ralph goes to his mother's room before dinner, as instructed. His mother asks after his ill health and that of his father. Ralph recalls that when his father moved to England, he had aimed to "live in England assimilated yet unconverted." He sent Ralph to school in America, but after Ralph's time at Oxford, he became more British than not. Ralph had only begun working at his father's bank when he got a respiratory infection, which permanently damaged his lungs. Doctors have advised him to seek warmer climates, which he does during the winter months. He deals with the limitations of his chronic condition, which the Victorians called consumption (and which we now call tuberculosis), by feigning indifference.

Ralph asks his mother about her plans for Isabel, and she tells him she plans to show the girl Europe. Although she admires Isabel's intelligence, Mrs. Touchett recognizes Isabel's mistaken belief that she knows about the ways of the world. Isabel isn't even aware that Mrs. Touchett is paying for her travels, imagining she is paying her own way. Mrs. Touchett tells Ralph that Isabel will defy Lord Warburton's understanding and denies Ralph's charge that she plans to marry Isabel off. Mrs. Touchett says Isabel will make her own decisions.

Ralph shows Isabel the art collection in the house. She proves to have a discerning eye. She says she likes everyone she has met, including Ralph, although she recognizes he wants to make everyone like him. Isabel asks if the house has a ghost, and Ralph says it does but that she hasn't suffered enough to see it. He tells her he wishes her happiness and that he "shall be very happy to contribute to it."


It is clear in Chapters 4 and 5 that Isabel Archer, although intelligent and book smart, lacks wisdom and experience. With a reputation for bookishness that repels young men who prefer her attractive older sister, Isabel is surprisingly ignorant of her own financial status. She doesn't recognize that her father wasted the family's money or that she is in danger of being dependent on her siblings. She takes for granted that she is paying her own way on the trip, while Mrs. Touchett is actually footing the bill. Isabel is perceptive and witty, but readers may wonder if the gaps in her understanding will trip her up or ultimately cause her downfall as they did her father. Indeed, in Chapter 4 the history of Mr. Archer, Isabel's father, provides something of a cautionary tale and foreshadows problems that lie ahead for Isabel. In his quest to be free from obligations and his carelessness with his finances, Isabel's father neglected her education and left her very little with which to survive. His life suggests dangers in Isabel's desire for liberty, especially as she seems completely oblivious to both his failings and her own financial status.

The author introduces readers to Isabel's first would-be suitor in Chapter 4. Caspar Goodwood, a handsome American, seems intent on winning Isabel over. Readers do not learn what happened in their meeting, however, and are left to wonder why he went away disappointed. Readers may assume she refused him, as the narrator states he is not easily defeated, implying he will propose again. Readers may assume the results of their meeting are connected to Isabel's recent reflections on her father's unconventional approach to life, her own relatively carefree childhood, and her recent opportunity to travel abroad. In a novel purportedly about the inner life of Isabel, readers should note that the author gives no glimpse of her interaction with Caspar, or even her thoughts about it afterward. This strategy leaves readers in suspense, curious about what happened, about Caspar himself, and about what Isabel's motivations were.

In Chapter 15 Henry James further develops the character of Isabel's cousin, Ralph Touchett. Readers learn about the origin and nature of his illness; respiratory troubles stemming from a bad cold. He deals with his chronic condition by acting as though he is resigned to it. (There was no cure for tuberculosis until the advent of effective antibiotics in the 1940s.) Readers see more of his relationship with his mostly absent mother. Although he depends more on and is closer to his father, Ralph is nevertheless fond of his mother. Readers may well wonder, though, if her distance may be behind Ralph's desire to make people like him, a trait astutely perceived by Isabel on the first day of their acquaintance. When Ralph tells Isabel he wishes her happiness and that he will do whatever he can to help her achieve it, the author foreshadows the role Ralph will play in novel.

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