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The Portrait of a Lady

Henry James

Chapters 52–55

Summary Chapters 52–55

Caspar Goodwood arrives in order to attend Ralph's funeral. Miserably, Isabel wonders whether she can bring herself to go back to Rome. She tries not to think about the problem. Mrs. Touchett tells her about Ralph's will: he has left his house to his mother and his library to Henrietta but nothing to Isabel. Isabel has an awkward meeting with Lord Warburton; she congratulates him on his marriage, and he invites her to call on the Misses Molyneux. She finds him strangely lifeless. When everyone is gone, Isabel sits on the garden bench—the same bench where Warburton proposed to her six years ago. Suddenly, Caspar Goodwood approaches her. He says that Ralph has asked him to help her, and he urges her not to return to Rome, but instead to leave with him. He kisses her deeply; Isabel feels as though she is drowning in the intensity of her emotion. She pulls herself away and runs into the house.

The next day, Goodwood finds Henrietta and asks her where Isabel has gone. Henrietta says that Isabel has returned to her husband in Rome. Goodwood is stunned; Henrietta takes him by the arm and leads him away.


And so, in the end, social convention seems to win out over American individualism and independence: Isabel returns to her agonizing marriage with Osmond, and even Henrietta decides to marry Mr. Bantling. Isabel's decision to return to Rome and to her husband is based on a variety of factors, each of which has been set up by the preceding chapters: her devotion to Pansy, her pride, her moral commitment to doing her duty even in times of suffering, her fear of the emotionally overwhleming Caspar Goodwood. Apart from Goodwood's obvious opposition, the principal resistance to Isabel's return to Rome seems to dissipate in this section. Ralph and Henrietta have been the staunchest champions of her independence and her freedom, and they each lose their voices—Ralph because he dies and Henrietta because she decides to give up her own independence in order to marry Bantling.

But just as James chose not to show us Isabel's engagement to Osmond or their wedding, he skips over her decision to return to Rome as well. We learn of it after the fact, and only second-hand, when Henrietta explains to Goodwood in Chapter 55 where Isabel has gone. James tends to use the elliptical technique whenever Isabel makes a decision that favors social custom over her independence, as though these moments are either intensely private or impossible to explain. In any case, the effect at the end of the novel is that Isabel simply dissipates, vanishing into the memory of her marriage; we are given no explanation of her thought process, and, for the first time, no hint as to what will become of her.

The novel solves its driving mysteries, then definitively answers its main conflict—social convention defeats individual freedom in a way that is not quite tragic and not quite morally inspiring—and then puts its story to rest. James's remarkable portrait of Isabel Archer has shown her development from an innocent, independent, optimistic young girl to a mature woman who has suffered and learned to commit herself to social propriety. After that lesson—which is not characterized by the novel as either right or wrong, and which is hard for the reader to accept as it is hard for Isabel herself—James seems to imply that there is nothing more to say.

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