The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Chapters 6–7 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 6

The narrator describes Isabel Archer's intellect as prone to idiosyncratic, untested theories and self-aggrandizement. Indeed, "she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right." She feels mortified when she finds she has been wrong on occasion and sets to work cultivating her mind to avoid failures, chief of which are inadvertently hurting others, living a "hollow" life, and "being hurt or ashamed." She wants to gain "a general impression of life" before she considers marrying, which she realizes can be "a ruinous expenditure" for some women. Isabel has a friend who represents female independence and self-sufficiency, real "proof that a woman might suffice to herself and be happy": Henrietta Stackpole, who, on her own salary as a journalist, supports herself and three of her widowed sister's children, whom she has adopted.

Mr. Touchett and Isabel become close. He enjoys listening to her talk about her opinions, something American girls are encouraged to have and express, and she mines his experience and knowledge of the British. He tells her the British are conventional but inconsistent. He recalls a lady novelist once came to stay and then included a caricature of him in her next book. He doesn't think she portrayed him correctly as an American. Isabel exclaims over the complex class system of England, and Mr. Touchett says as an American, he belongs to none of them.

Chapter 7

Mrs. Touchett criticizes England and its ways, and Isabel asks her from what viewpoint she does so. Mrs. Touchett says she does so not as an American but as an individual. Ralph teases Isabel for being patriotic; he has become very fond of her. She is a source of joy, even as Ralph worries over his father's failing health. Isabel accuses Ralph of making everything into a joke. Ralph thinks of Isabel as a source of entertainment and beauty, something like a great work of art for his wall or a "beautiful edifice" he admires. He thinks she will do great things, unlike other women who waited for things to happen to them, and he hopes to be around to witness them.

Lord Warburton comes to stay the night and ends up spending a few days at the Touchetts' home. Isabel finds him charming. One evening when Mrs. Touchett is ready to retire to bed, Isabel asks if she may sit up longer with Ralph and Lord Warburton. Mrs. Touchett tells her it would be improper in England for a lady to be alone with gentlemen in the evening.

Analysis

The author introduces readers to Henrietta Stackpole, a very different sort of woman. Henrietta, who earns her own salary as a journalist, supports not just herself but also the children of a relative, whom she has adopted. She travels the world, reporting on what she finds. Isabel recognizes in Henrietta an example of a woman who is self-sufficient and proof that women do not need to marry, necessarily, to be fulfilled or even to survive. Henrietta is an example of the New Woman, a cultural phenomenon and early feminist movement that was beginning to present different possibilities for the lives of women.

In both Chapters 6 and 7, the author contrasts the conventions of America versus those of England. In Chapter 6 the narrator states that Isabel talks to Mr. Touchett very freely because she, like all American girls, is encouraged to express her opinions and emotions. It is implied this is not something English girls are to do. It is Isabel's Americanness in this respect that is part of her charm and novelty to those around her. She finds much liberty in her speech, which is largely unrestrained, so it is natural she should be surprised to find her physical liberty challenged by her aunt (of all people) in Chapter 7. She wishes to sit up a while later talking to Ralph and Lord Warburton, but her Aunt wishes to leave to go to bed. Mrs. Touchett tells Isabel this means she must go to bed as well because English conventions do not allow a young woman to sit up late at night alone with gentlemen. Even Ralph Touchett and Lord Warburton recognize this would be inappropriate. Readers can assume that if she were in America, such an activity would be harmless, especially because Ralph is her cousin. Another contrast between the two countries in these two chapters is the complexity of social classes in England. Isabel claims hyperbolically that in England there are "about fifty" classes, and Mr. Touchett says Americans belong to none of them.

In Chapter 7 readers witness Isabel being objectified. Fond of her as he is, Ralph thinks of his cousin as an extraordinary, lovely new piece of art, like a Titian; or an impressive building, such as a Gothic cathedral. He is amazed at his luck that she should arrive in his dull home, like a gift. There is a definite sense of ownership in his objectification, too, as if she has become his possession. He compares her to "a Greek bas-relief to stick over my chimney." Readers will find a similar view of Isabel again in later chapters, with another male character. The misogyny of such characterization of women is apparent in the casual, complimentary nature of the narrative. It is as if such thoughts about Isabel were merely a testament to Ralph's admiration rather than degrading and objectifying, and readers may find the implications of Ralph's ownership of his cousin distasteful.

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