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The Portrait of a Lady

Henry James

Chapters 4–7

Summary Chapters 4–7


Of Isabel's three sisters, she was always considered the intellectual. Edith was the prettiest, and Lillian was the most sensible. Lillian is now married to a lawyer in New York and considers it her duty to look after Isabel. Her husband, Edmund, disapproves of Isabel—when Lillian says that her trip to Europe will give her the chance to develop, Edmund replies that she is already too original and should stop developing at once.

The night before leaving for Europe, Isabel sits in her room thinking about her life; she has felt restless for a long time and longs for a change of scene. This longing has grown increasingly acute since she learned that she would be traveling to Europe. Isabel thinks that she has been lucky in life: she has never experienced anything unpleasant and wonders whether misfortune would be interesting. She remembers her father, whom she loved very dearly. Other people considered her father's handling of his daughters' education to be scandalous, but Isabel is fiercely proud of her independent mind. She thinks about marriage, and reflects that she has few suitors because she is known to spend so much time reading; this frightens many men away. A maid enters to announce the arrival of Caspar Goodwood, Isabel's favorite suitor. Isabel goes down to talk to him, and he soon leaves the house, disappointed.

Ralph Touchett goes to see his mother in her room. Ralph first came to England as a boy, when his father moved there to work in a bank. His father decided to remain in England, but he sent Ralph to be educated in America. After Harvard, Ralph attended Oxford so that he would learn how to be English enough to take over Mr. Touchett's bank. Ralph would have done anything his father asked—he considered his father to be his best friend and admired him very much. Ralph spent two years traveling after Oxford and then began work in the bank. But a worsening lung condition soon forced him to give up work and live as an invalid. Ralph, who has a great appreciation for life, hates his fragility—he says that it is like reading a bad translation of a good book, when he had hoped to master the language. Ralph is quite taken with his cousin Isabel and asks his mother where she plans to take her for her European tour.

Mrs. Touchett says that Isabel will decide for herself but that she does hope to take her to Paris for a wardrobe and eventually to Florence for the autumn. Mrs. Touchett says that she and Isabel both speak their minds, which makes them very compatible. The only problem is that Isabel insists on paying her own way through Europe—Isabel does not know anything about money and cannot afford to pay her own way, so Mrs. Touchett is forced to fool her into thinking that she is doing so, when in fact Mrs. Touchett is funding most of the trip. Ralph wonders what Isabel excels at, and Mrs. Touchett says that Warburton seems to think it is flirting. She says that Warburton will never understand the girl. Ralph asks his mother if she plans to find a husband for Isabel, but Mrs. Touchett denies it.

After dinner that night, Ralph shows Isabel his paintings—he has a passion for art—and notes that she has a good eye. She asks him to show her the manor's ghost, but Ralph says that only people who have suffered can see it. He says that he has seen the ghost, but that Isabel is too young and innocent to see it. Isabel replies that she is not afraid of suffering.

Isabel spends a great deal of time thinking about herself and generally accepts the idea that she is smarter than everyone around her. She has a powerful self- assurance and an extraordinary faith in her own goodness. She often wishes for hardship, so that she could demonstrate her ability to overcome it without losing her moral essence. Isabel often compares herself to her friend Henrietta Stackpole, who is even more independent than Isabel—she is a journalist for the New York Interviewer and professes not to believe in marriage. Isabel loves her time in England. She often visits with Mr. Touchett on the lawn, arguing about the merits of the English—from her reading of novels, Isabel asserts that they are terribly conventional and obsessed with class, but Mr. Touchett replies that being an American in England means that one does not have any particular class affiliation.

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