The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady Summary and Analysis of Chapters 3-4

Chapters 3-4

Mrs. Touchett is described as having a no-nonsense personality: "the edges of her conduct were so very clear-cut… that it sometimes had a knife-like effect." (16-17) She realized early on that her husband and herself would never desire the same thing at any moment, and thus she has purchased her own house in Florence, separating her own affairs from his. It is her ceremony to return from long journeys and to enter into her own seclusion.

Mrs. Touchett had happened upon Isabel four months earlier, in the library of Isabel's grandmother's house, which is adjoined to her father's. Isabel is described as undisturbed by her own solitude, preoccupied with her reading, having a love of knowledge. The library is having one door that is bolted shut: Isabel had no wish to look out of this door, because she liked to imagine a place on the other side that is a region of delight or terror. When Mrs. Touchett finds Isabel in the library, Isabel is deep in reading a history of German Thought, in the most depressing corner she can find. Isabel's own mind is described as a "vagabond" which she had to train to "advance, to halt, to retreat, to perform" some "marching orders" (19). Isabel recognizes Mrs. Touchett as "our crazy Aunt Lydia!" to which Mrs. Touchett responds that she has not a single delusion.

Mrs. Touchett straightforwardly asks Isabel what she has inherited, and Isabel tells her she has not the least idea about money. Mrs. Touchett finds it extraordinary that Isabel does not know what she has. Isabel only responds that she hopes her sister and brother-in-law do not decide to tear down the house, because it is "full of life," defined to her as a place where many people have died. Mrs. Touchett responds that her own house has many more who died there, and Isabel says she would like to one day go to Florence, where Mrs. Touchett lives. Isabel finds Mrs. Touchett to be a "strange and interesting figure: a figure essentially--almost the first she had ever met" (22).

Isabel is described by her sister Lillian as an "original," and Lilian's husband, Mr. Ludlow, notes that it is as if Isabel is "written in a foreign tongue" (24). In a private conversation, Lillian hopes that Mrs. Touchett will do something grand for Isabel, such as taking her abroad.

Meanwhile, Isabel feels as if there has been a real change in her life. She has a desire to leave the past behind. She closes her eyes because she "wished to check the sense of seeing too many things at once" -- she is described as having the "faculty of seeing without judging." We now enter something like Isabel's mind's eye -- Isabel is thinking about her own circumstances in life, her own history, as memories. She notes that she had been a very fortunate person who has had the best of everything, guarded from unpleasant things. The narrator notes that many persons were of the opinion though that Mr. Archer had squandered his money and had hardly raised his own daughters, allowing them to be brought up by maids and governesses. Had Isabel known this, she would have felt some indignation. (Notably, this is not actually a thought that Isabel herself has, so much as a speculation by the narrator.) Her father had a "large way of looking at life" (26) and had wanted to show the world to his daughters. He had even brought her and her sisters across the Atlantic three times to do so. If he had had trouble with money, he had certainly not let his daughters know about it.

When the daughters came of age to be wed, it became apparent that her sister Edith was the best looking. However it does not seem that Isabel is unbecoming so much as intimidating. The men who came to see Edith are described as "afraid of" Isabel, as if they had to be particularly prepared to speak to her (27). She also had a reputation for being a girl who likes books and reading. Isabel likes being thought clever but not bookish. She liked gathering knowledge but she preferred to gain knowledge from sources other than the printed page. Thus, "her deepest enjoyment was to feel the continuity between movements of her own soul and the agitations of the world" (28).

The narrator concludes this scene in Isabel's mind's eye by noting that the view of this history is "kaleidoscopic" during this scene in which Isabel has closed her eyes (28). She is interrupted by the announcement from a servant that Caspar Goodwood has come to visit her. He has written her several times from New York and wishes to marry her, although this has not yet been made public. Isabel does not seem to really want to see him, although she had expected him. He is described as having an angular jaw, and being a person who demands attention. "He was not, it may be added, a man weakly to accept defeat" (29).


Isabel is depicted as somewhat naïve about money, and as idealistic. It is not a coincidence that she is reading a book on German Thought when Mrs. Touchett happens upon her. This book, along with Lord Warburton's previous assertion that she is an "idea" made into flesh, is a reference to German Idealism. German Idealism was a philosophy that was interested in the relationship between the self and world. It believes that the self actually made the world into what it was -- the world exists insofar as it can be thought. We make the world what it is by thinking about it. This reflects Henry James' understanding of the value of Isabel Archer, as articulated in his preface: she is an interesting character because others think about her, and she thinks about others. The content of these ideas is vague. Instead, it is the fact of thinking of many possibilities that makes her imagination so vivid. This is further reflected in her relationship to the door that is barred shut in the library. She is not interested in what lies behind the door so much as what she can imagine lies behind the door.

The scene that plays in Isabel's mind's eye is interesting because it is not exactly the knowledge of an omniscient narrator, so much as a speculative one. The narrator has obviously assisted certain thoughts to appear more clearly in Isabel's mind than they appear to herself: so for example, Isabel does not know that others speak ill of her father, but she does seem to have articulated the indignation with which she would have received such comments within herself. Often times during the narrator's description of Isabel's thoughts, it is unclear whether or not it is the narrator directly translating Isabel's thoughts, or if he is lending a helping hand to these thoughts merely by lending his own vocabulary to them, or if he is speculating what she could have been thinking without knowing for himself. This is a narrative technique that James will develop to an extreme extent in his later works, but it is already present here. "Free indirect discourse" is the technique employed here, where the narrator more literally translates the thoughts of a character, but does not use quotation marks. For example, he tells us: "Isabel said to herself that it bespoke resolution tonight" rather than "Isabel said to herself, 'It bespeaks resolution tonight.'" It is significant because it lends ambiguity to the question: what thoughts are actually articulated in the mind of Isabel? What does she really know? There is also a method employed here which Arlene Young (see citation page) has called "hypothetical discourse" (employed more often again, in James' later works), where the narrator speculates what would be going on in the mind of the character, if a certain circumstance had presented itself. This lends even more ambiguity to the question of what Isabel in actuality knows.