The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady Summary and Analysis of Chapters 19-21

Chapters 19 - 20

Isabel forms a friendship with Madame Merle, finding her a model worthy of admiration. She observes that Madame Merle was once a woman of great passion, but no longer is -- she has had much experience in her life. Yet Isabel finds it difficult to think of Madame Merle as an individual, in detachment from others and in a private state of being. She sees Madame Merle as existing only through her relations to others. She notes that Merle has a charming surface, but that does not necessarily make her superficial. Isabel notes that Merle speaks in a conventional tongue, but she asks herself: "What's language at all but a convention? She has the good taste not to pretend, like some people I've met, to express herself by original signs" (167).

Isabel theorizes that someone or something must have once hurt Madame Merle, and Madame Merle responds that she will tell her a story one day about her life. Merle believes that Americans have no natural place in European society, and they are forced to crawl. She notes that Ralph Touchett is recognized solely through his title as an American in Europe, and that he is simply idle. She says that the worst case she knows of is her friend, Gilbert Osmond, a delightful man who is entirely indolent. He is devoted to his daughter, but does nothing else, and has no ambition to do anything else.

Merle mentions that it is perhaps inappropriate that she is staying on in the house when Mr. Touchett is so sick, but declares that the doctor believes she will offer some solace to the family. Merle does not believe she can console Ralph, as he does not like her. Isabel suspects that there is something else between Merle and Ralph, but she does not to be nosy. So the narrator informs us, "The love of knowledge co-existed in her mind with the finest capacity for ignorance" (173).

Madame Merle mourns not having done something better with her life. She may be talented, but she has no real use for these talents. She wishes that she had Isabel's qualities, of being frank, generous, and sincere. Isabel sees Merle as an image of success, the dream of one's youth come true, whereas Merle seems to think she has failed in her own ambitions. Merle asks what Isabel's own image looks like, joking that it is a young man with a mustache with a castle in the Apennines.

Isabel notes that she would not care about a house. Merle responds, "That's very crude of you. When you've lived as long as I have you'll see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There's no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we're each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances. What shall we call our 'self'? Where does it begin? Where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us--and then it flows back again. I know a large part of myself is in the clothes I choose to wear. I've a great respect for things! One's self--for other people--is one's expression of one's self; and one's house, one's furniture, one's garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps--there things are all expressive" (175). Isabel protests that while she may not know if she can express herself, she does know that nothing else expresses her (but herself). All the appurtenances are merely barriers to her self. Merle jokes that she might prefer to go without clothing.

Isabel lets on that she has refused offers of marriage. Madame Merle tells her that it may be a pleasant exercise in power, but that she ought not to keep on refusing. She then wishes that Isabel had some money of her own. Isabel wishes as well that she did.

Madame Merle leaves the house before Mr. Touchett dies, but then returns after he has passed away. She learns from Mrs. Touchett that Isabel has inherited a fortune, and suggests that Isabel is a "clever" creature, to which Mrs. Touchett takes offense. Isabel, upon learning of her inheritance, feels gloomy.

Isabel then departs for Paris, where she meets a circle of people who seem incredibly wasteful, living in luxury. She meets a childhood friend, Ned Rosier, who seems to be living this sort of luxurious life. Henrietta is also in Paris, and worries that Isabel has inherited so much money because it will allow her imagination to run free without her having to take in the reality of things, to meet with any hardships.

Chapter 21

Isabel goes to Italy to meet up with her aunt. Ralph is also with Mrs. Touchett. In a conversation with Ralph, Isabel asks Ralph if his father granted her so much money purely for Ralph's amusement. He avoids this question and gravely returns that the money will give her freedom, and that she ought not worry so much about the morality of it. She need only allow her character to develop freely. Isabel takes this advice to heart. Perhaps, she thinks, she ought not be so worried about whether something is good for her, that she should not be so afraid of doing right or wrong.

Isabel then thinks aloud with Ralph in her presence that perhaps she is merely afraid - she tries to care more about the world than herself, but she always seems to come back to herself. She recognizes that a large fortune means freedom.

She then begins to see Italy as a land of promise. She considers being with the Touchetts as a kind of preliminary hovering, as a peaceful interlude, which allows her to reflect on her hopes and fears, her ambitions and predilections. She gradually grows accustomed to feeling rich. She allows herself to dream big, to consider the many occasions and obligations that she can have as a rich person. The narrator declares that her fortune becomes a part of her mind, a part of her better self. However, sometimes Isabel's visions take her back to Caspar and Warburton. While it is more often her habit to lose faith in the reality of absent things, she could sometimes be reminded of these painful realities, as if they were dead things suddenly come to life in her mind. She does not imagine, though, that others think of her in the same way.

She does have a foreboding feeling though that she might come to know the humiliation of finally giving into Caspar's will. She fears that she will come to find it restful to be with him.


Isabel's admiration of Madame Merle is significant because Merle seems to be a realization of Isabel's own vague ideas, while also being a direct contradiction to them. Isabel thinks Merle is successful - she is independent, can go where she wants, and has obviously tasted of the cup of experience. There is a hint however that Merle has a darker past, and that such experience has left her cold. It is notable how impeccably Merle presents herself, but how essentially useless and empty she seems to feel. There is some speculation that she is not superficial, especially on the part of Isabel, but she does not seem to claim to be anything but superficial. She cares about being seen well in society, because a person for her consists only in their "appurtenances." Isabel idealistically asserts that there is some substance to a person aside from their appearance in society, but she fails to express what this elusive something is. Again, there is a disparity between the essence of an identity (Isabel's self) and the means she has to express it. She can only seem to express her own originality negatively. What makes a person original, when the only means a person has to express this originality are conventional?

Money is a significant theme lurking behind the psychological motivations of characters in this novel. It is also an agent for action of the novel, even though it is disguised as merely an aid to the imagination. While Isabel claims that money and other superficial displays of wealth (such as a castle) are unimportant to her, she does finally recognize that having money might give her the freedom to express her own original ideas. She wants to proclaim an idea that only uses the help of money to express itself. We might compare this to Henry James' situation as a writer in a quickly developing scene of the commodification of literature. As Michael Anesko has pointed out (see bibliography), James was very much aware of the changing marketplace for fiction, and being a financial success was important for him. He was very savvy in the way he was published and was able to make quite a bit of money from his works. However, he is very much known as a writer developed to the aesthetics and morality of fiction, to loftier goals than mere financial profit. The reference to money in The Portrait of a Lady, and its situation as an agent in the affairs of its characters, might show a more skeptical view on the part of Henry James of one's ability to divorce the financial aspect of something from the artistic aspect of it.