The Portrait of a Lady

by: Henry James

Chapters 4–7

Isabel also spends a great deal of time talking to Ralph about English politics. Isabel is very critical of England, but she is fiercely defensive of America. She wonders about Ralph—she realizes that he uses his quick wit to turn everything into a joke while hiding his deeper thoughts and feelings. For his part, Ralph thinks of Isabel constantly and even wonders if he is in love with her. He decides that he is not, thinking that she is like a beautiful building that he can look at but never enter. But he admires her personality: while most women allow men to define their lives, Isabel has her own ideas and plans.

Lord Warburton visits one day; Isabel finds that she is very fond of him, thinking that he seems like the romantic hero of a story. After dinner, the young people sit and talk with Mrs. Touchett, who at last declares to Isabel that they should go to bed. Isabel says that she wishes to stay downstairs and talk to Ralph and Warburton. Mrs. Touchett insists that it is not proper for a young woman to sit alone with young men late at night. Isabel submits and goes upstairs with her aunt. She tells her that she did not know her behavior was improper and says that she would like Mrs. Touchett to tell her whenever her behavior violates social convention. If she knows what the social conventions are, she says, she will be able to tell whether she wishes to follow them or not.


The flashback that opens Chapter 4 is the first time in the novel that Isabel's perspective becomes the center of the novel. Isabel's long rumination about her life and her desire to travel seems fairly natural—these are the things an intelligent girl in her situation would be likely to consider before leaving on a long voyage to Europe—but James also very cleverly uses it to bring out some of the elements of Isabel's character that will define her conflict in Europe later in the novel. He shows, for instance, that Isabel has a very high opinion of her own moral stature and shows her longing for hardship so that she might prove to herself that she could suffer and still remain a good person. We also see Isabel's uncertainty about marriage and about her suitor, Caspar Goodwood, a very stiff but very imposing figure whose apparent power Isabel finds threatening.

Isabel's conversation with Caspar is not recorded in the book, but it is clear to the reader that he has asked her to marry him and that she has rejected him. James uses this technique of skipping over important incidents throughout the novel; many of the most crucial events in the plot are only implied or hinted at in the aftermath of their occurrence. In a narrative, this technique is known as ellipses—literally, the incident that is left out is like a "…" in the middle of a sentence. James is a master of elliptical narrative, and will employ it throughout the book.

The narration of Ralph's personal history in Chapter 5 brings us closer to his character, which is one of the most important in the novel. As Lord Warburton noted in the opening scene of the book, Ralph often seems to be skeptical or cynical, and his quick wit causes him to make a joke out of everything, but he is also a deeply loving and well-adjusted young man who forms, in many ways, the moral center of the novel. Where other characters often complain about boredom and suffering, Ralph is in the ultimate position of boredom and suffering—his lung illness essentially forces him to sit on the sidelines of life and watch those around him have experiences he will never have. But instead of complaining, Ralph loves life, and when he meets Isabel, he seems to decide to live vicariously through her. Throughout the book, Ralph will be fascinated by every choice Isabel makes, and he will never pressure her, even though, in the overall scheme of the book, his opinions about her actions and about other people are always right.

Isabel and Ralph develop a very close relationship, which begins in this section as they walk through the portrait gallery and talk about politics and art. Though Isabel is educated and intelligent, she also has a deep-seated, naïve romanticism in her character, which we first saw when she first arrived at Gardencourt and thought that it was like "a novel." In this section, her romantic streak leads to a moment of foreshadowing, as Isabel asks Ralph to show her the ghost of Gardencourt—in every novel, she says, old English manors always have a ghost. Ralph tells her that one must suffer before one can see Gardencourt's ghost and that Isabel has never suffered. At the very end of the novel, Isabel will return to Gardencourt for Ralph's death, and she will see the ghost.