The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Chapters 54–55 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 54

Isabel Archer arrives in Gardencourt and has lunch with Mrs. Touchett, who says Ralph Touchett is unconscious much of the time. She also tells Isabel that Lord Warburton is engaged to a British lady. Mrs. Touchett asks Isabel if she regrets refusing Lord Warburton and if she is still close to Madame Merle, both of which Isabel denies. Mrs. Touchett says Madame Merle "made a convenience" out of them both, and indeed, everyone.

Isabel sits with Ralph. The third day, he manages enough strength to speak to her. She drops any pretense of happiness and sobs at his bedside. She asks if it is true he made her wealthy. He confirms it and regrets her pain and his role in it. There are no more deceptions between them, and Ralph says he had known all along what she had tried to hide from him: her unhappiness. She tells him she loves him and calls him "my brother."

Chapter 55

Isabel sees Ralph's ghost beside her bed. Ralph has died. Isabel can't decide whether or not to return to Italy. She sees Lord Warburton in the garden, and he invites her again to Lockleigh. They say goodbye. Isabel realizes she is near the same bench upon which she sat reading the letter from Caspar Goodwood before Lord Warburton had arrived and proposed to her. She sits on the bench until dusk, when she looks up to find Caspar. He says Ralph had asked him to help her and that both men knew Gilbert Osmond is a "fiend." He urges Isabel not to return to a husband who will punish her. He says he will do anything to help her, and he doesn't care about negative social consequences. He will love her forever. Crying, Isabel tells him to leave. Caspar grabs her and kisses her. As he aggressively embraces her, his "hard manhood" brings everything she dislikes about him to her mind. She runs away. When Caspar calls at Gardencourt a few days later, he learns Isabel has left for London. He goes to Henrietta Stackpole's in search of Isabel, but Henrietta tells him Isabel has already left for Rome.

Analysis

In Chapter 54 Ralph Touchett and Isabel Archer are reunited both physically and emotionally. When he asks for her, she comes, despite great personal cost. She drops her pretense of happiness and learns he has known all along what she has been experiencing. She, unlike Madame Merle, is not yet so damaged that she can't cry. She sobs and shares her grief with Ralph, just as she used to be able to confide in him. They return to the closeness they once shared; so close, she tells him that she loves him and calls him her brother.

Even readers who share Isabel's distaste for Caspar Goodwood's bullheaded pursuit must feel a little sorry for him as he begs Isabel to not return to Osmond, promising to love her forever and to help her. He wants so desperately to save her, and all she tells him is to leave her alone.

In Chapter 55 the author includes the only real description of physical passion in the novel. Caspar's kiss is aggressive, and in his "hard manhood" Isabel senses everything about him she dislikes. Although the author alluded in Chapter 32 to how "anxiously and yet so ardently she had given herself" to Osmond when they married, this is the only scene in which readers see sexual attraction expressed in the novel.

The final two chapters of the book bring Isabel full circle. Like the start of the novel, Isabel arrives at Gardencourt, which is covered in the hush that accompanies a dying resident. Just as she sat at the bedside of Mr. Touchett, she sits by Ralph Touchett's. She says Ralph's face reminds her of her uncle's. In the same part of the garden where he proposed, Lord Warburton says goodbye to Isabel. Sitting on the very same bench on which she read the letter from Caspar, she sits with him as he presses her to be with him. The difference is the suffering Isabel has experienced since she was first at Gardencourt. Just as Ralph predicted, those who have suffered enough can see the ghost of the house. Isabel sees Ralph's ghost just after his death.

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