The Portrait of a Lady By Henry James Summary and Analysis Chapters 17-18

Summary

Shortly after Caspar Goodwood's visit, Henrietta questions Isabel about the interview, only to be told that Goodwood is returning to America without having received any satisfaction from Isabel. Henrietta fears that Isabel is losing her sense of values and attempts to advise Isabel about her conduct. Isabel is forced to tell Henrietta that the affair is closed and requests Henrietta to leave her alone.

Ralph receives a telegram informing him that his father has taken a turn for the worse. When Isabel hears of this, she wants to return to Gardencourt with Ralph. Henrietta says that she has other plans and will not return. Alone with Ralph, Henrietta tells him that Isabel has sent Mr. Goodwood away.

At Gardencourt, Isabel enters the drawing room to find some lady playing the piano with a great deal of talent. She hears from the lady that Mr. Touchett is no better and that she is there to visit with Mrs. Touchett. She has already heard a lot about Isabel and introduces herself as Madame Merle, an old friend of Mrs. Touchett's. When Isabel later questions Ralph about Madame Merle, he tells her that she is the cleverest woman he has ever known. "She does everything beautifully. She's complete." From the nature of his comments, Isabel infers that Ralph does Madame Merle.

Ralph spends most of his time talking with his father. In one interview, he tells Mr. Touchett that Isabel has turned down another suitor while in London. Ralph then says he would like to see Isabel have the power to be completely independent. He wants to "put a little wind in her sails." He would like "to put it into her power to do some of the things she wants. She wants to see the world for instance." He would "like to put money in her purse." He wants her to be rich enough "to meet the requirements of her imagination," and he feels "Isabel has a great deal of imagination." He then proposes that Mr. Touchett amend his will to leave half the inheritance intended for his son to Isabel. He explains that he can't offer Isabel money, but she could accept it by means of such a legacy.

Mr. Touchett considers if the step might not be inadvisable. He wonders if it would be a favor to interfere so much in her life and to change her destiny so radically. He expresses the fear that Isabel might fall into the hands of a fortune hunter. Ralph, however, believes that Isabel will hardly become a victim of anyone. And furthermore, he will benefit by having "met the requirements of" his imagination.

Analysis

Part of Isabel's greatness is that she can see the best in most people. Thus, she remains on good terms with Henrietta Stackpole even when Henrietta does such things as arrange a meeting between Isabel and Caspar Goodwood. She does have to tell Henrietta not to interfere anymore.

Henrietta's intervention, however, allows Ralph to learn more about Isabel and to become more interested in her. He is now curious to observe just how far can a young person go who has turned down an English lord only to reject immediately thereafter a proposal from a rich American. This added interest will help him decide to make Isabel an heiress.

In Chapter 18, James introduces us to Madame Merle. In her first appearance, she is seen as a greatly accomplished woman with much charm and cleverness. Since she is alone, it is only natural that she spend a good portion of the day in Isabel's company. From Ralph, Isabel learns that Madame Merle is an exceptional woman. She is about the only woman in Europe who can invite herself to many great houses for a visit. But Ralph's comments also imply some subtle criticism of Madame Merle. He suggests that a woman can be too perfect, too good or too clever. These early suggestions prepare the reader to view Madame Merle with some suspicion.

Much of Isabel and Ralph's relation with each other has been leading up to Ralph's proposal to his father that he make Isabel an heiress. He has seen her in enough situations so that his curiosity is aroused as to how far Isabel could go if she had the resources to meet the "requirements of her imagination." Ralph wants the money left to Isabel so that the fullness of her imagination can be developed, so that she can soar as high as she can, and so that she can rise to her fullest potential. All of these motives seem noble and good. Ralph seems to be acting for Isabel's benefit. But seldom in James are a character's motivations so simple. We must note that Ralph has very few interests in life and one of his most absorbing pastimes is observing Isabel. Thus, part of his motivation is selfish. He wishes to be amused by seeing what a person as grand as Isabel will do when she has complete freedom.

We must now look forward to the ultimate result of Ralph's good intentions. His intrusion into Isabel's life will prove to be the direct cause of her later tragedy. Often, in a James' novel, the meddling of one person will produce disastrous results. Furthermore, we should note here that Mr. Touchett has qualms about interfering in Isabel's life and he leaves the money because Ralph is rather insistent.

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