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The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram



The novel opens on the lawn of Gardencourt, the country home of Mr. Touchett, who is enjoying tea outside with his son Ralph and neighbor Lord Warburton. Mr. Touchett is a retired American banker who has chosen to live in England. He is now an elderly invalid. Ralph has tuberculosis, which the Victorians called "consumption," and no real job, and Lord Warburton is a wealthy British landowner. Mr. Touchett tells the men he recently received a telegram from his wife who had been in America visiting her nieces after the death of their father. She says she is coming home with her one of her nieces, who is decidedly independent.

Isabel Archer observes the men from the doorway of the house for a time before Ralph's dog alerts them to her presence. She observes everything around her with interest, and Ralph and Lord Warburton are struck by her beauty and intelligence. Mrs. Touchett, an idiosyncratic woman who lives apart from her husband most of the year, goes straight to her room. She had visited Isabel in America where she offered to show the girl Europe. Isabel had a relatively unsupervised childhood, and she did not have regular education. She has been free to develop her own mind, which has led to strength of imagination but lack of wisdom and experience. Although Isabel is grateful to Mrs. Touchett for the opportunity to see more of the world, she lets her aunt know she values her liberty and will not blindly obey.

Friends and Lovers

Lord Warburton falls in love with Isabel and proposes. Isabel asks for time to consider his offer, although she has no desire to give up her independence before she has had a chance to see Europe. She writes him a letter turning him down. Isabel develops a close friendship with Ralph who is falling in love with her, too. He feels he has no right to speak of his feelings, however, because of his illness and short life expectancy.

Isabel's American journalist friend, Henrietta Stackpole, comes to visit, and is disappointed when Isabel, telling her friend she has no "sense of privacy," dissuades her from portraying the Touchetts and their home in her column about life in Europe. Henrietta is unmarried and supports herself and relatives on her own salary. She is a feisty, opinionated woman who can't be bothered with societal constraints. She tells Isabel she traveled over with Caspar Goodwood, another man smitten with Isabel. Isabel wishes Henrietta hadn't encouraged him. She had just managed to put him off before she left New York.

Ralph, Henrietta, and Isabel visit London where Caspar shows up to again plead his case with Isabel, who dislikes his persistence. She convinces him to leave her alone for a couple of years while she sees Europe. Ralph receives a telegram from his mother that his father has become very sick. Back at Gardencourt, Isabel meets Madame Merle, a mysterious widow and friend of Mrs. Touchett. Isabel is fascinated with the talented woman, and the two form a close friendship. She says she knows a man in Florence, named Gilbert Osmond, that she wants Isabel to meet one day. Madame Merle departs before Mr. Touchett dies. Isabel learns her uncle has left her quite a lot of money, although she doesn't know Ralph convinced his father to leave half of what would have been his inheritance to the girl so she will have the means to do whatever she likes with her life.

Florence and Rome

Mrs. Touchett takes Isabel to her home in Florence. Madame Merle, also in Florence, introduces Isabel to Gilbert Osmond, his sister the Countess Gemini, and his daughter, Pansy. Pansy is a young, innocent, submissive girl who has lived and been educated in a Roman convent. She clings to her father and shyly greets Isabel. Osmond is a collector of antiquities with no real occupation. He agrees, at Madame Merle's suggestion, to consider Isabel as a possible wife because of her money. Madame Merle tells Isabel that Osmond is brilliant and can make himself agreeable to those he deems worthy. Isabel is flattered when he makes the effort for her. Although no one else in her circle, apart from Madame Merle, likes Osmond, Isabel seems to fall under his spell. She invites him to join her in Rome, which she will visit next.

In Rome Isabel happens upon Lord Warburton who has been traveling, trying to forget his disappointment. He is still in love with her, but he leaves after he sees how things are between Isabel and Osmond. Isabel leaves with Mrs. Touchett to travel more.

A year later Isabel returns to Italy. Caspar visits her, but she is to marry Osmond. Mrs. Touchett worries that Osmond, who has little money, is pursuing Isabel for her fortune, but Isabel will not listen to her concerns or those of anyone else. She prides herself that her decision to marry Osmond is an exercise of her independence. Isabel argues with Ralph about her choice and is warned by the Countess Gemini, but Pansy, for one, is delighted.

Married Life

Three years after Isabel marries Osmond, Edward Rosier has fallen in love with Pansy and asks Madame Merle and Isabel to put in a good word for him with Osmond. Rosier has no profession but a comfortable income. He, like Osmond, likes to collect curios, but he is not good enough for Pansy, according to Osmond. Despite warnings from Madame Merle not to, Rosier tells Pansy of his feelings, and she reciprocates. Her father forbids her to speak to Rosier. Lord Warburton accompanies Ralph, now very ill, to visit Rome where the Osmond family lives. Lord Warburton is interested in Pansy, and Osmond tells Isabel to use her influence to get him to propose. Isabel, caught in a now-miserable marriage to a man who hates her, feels sorry for her stepdaughter but compelled to do what Osmond commands. Isabel happens upon Osmond and Madame Merle close together in a room, and it raises her suspicions. Ralph suggests Lord Warburton is still in love with Isabel, not Pansy, and Lord Warburton eventually leaves Rome without proposing. Osmond is furious with Isabel. Madame Merle confronts Isabel about interfering in the match. Isabel realizes Madame Merle and Osmond manipulated her into her marriage.

Isabel visits Ralph in Rome, although it makes Osmond angry. Caspar visits Rome to see if Isabel is really happy in her life or not. Henrietta does the same, worried for her friend. She urges Isabel to leave Osmond. When Ralph takes a turn for the worse, Isabel asks Caspar to take him back to Gardencourt. Henrietta goes, too.

Osmond sends Pansy back to the convent to keep her away from Rosier. Isabel receives a telegram from Mrs. Touchett, telling her that Ralph is dying. Osmond forbids her to go to England to see him one last time. Isabel visits Pansy in the convent and offers to take her to England, but Pansy will not disobey her father despite her love for Rosier and her desire to leave the confines of the convent. Isabel goes to England, and she confesses her unhappiness to Ralph. He, in turn, confesses he was the one behind her fortune. Ralph dies. Isabel visits with Lord Warburton, now engaged to an English woman. Caspar meets Isabel in the garden and professes his continued love. He begs Isabel not to return to Osmond, grabbing her in an aggressive embrace. She runs away to the house. When Caspar tries to find her, he learns from Henrietta that Isabel has returned to Rome.

The Portrait of a Lady Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Isabel meets Mrs. Touchett, who offers to show her Europe.

Rising Action

2 Isabel meets Ralph, her uncle, and Lord Warburton.

3 Lord Warburton proposes, but Isabel refuses him.

4 Caspar tries to convince Isabel to marry him; she refuses.

5 Isabel becomes friends with Madame Merle.

6 Ralph asks his father to leave Isabel more money.

7 Mr. Touchett dies, leaving Isabel a fortune.

8 Isabel travels to Italy with Mrs. Touchett and meets Osmond.

9 After seeing Europe, she marries Osmond against warnings.

10 Osmond tells Isabel to get Warburton to propose to Pansy.


11 Isabel realizes Osmond and Madame Merle's plot.

Falling Action

12 Isabel rebels against Osmond to visit Ralph, who is dying.

13 Ralph dies.

14 Caspar begs Isabel to leave Osmond, kissing her.


15 Isabel returns to Rome and Osmond.

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