The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady Summary and Analysis of Chapters 5-6

Chapter 5

At the opening of Chapter 5, Ralph Touchett knocks on his mother's door eagerly. His mother is described as being more fatherly, her father, as more motherly.

Ralph's father, Mr. Daniel Touchett, is described as having adopted England as his country because he found it sane and accommodating. Yet he also had no great desire to render himself less American. Ralph therefore spent many terms at an American school, has a degree from an American university, but he also spent three years at Oxford. Ralph is therefore well accustomed to English manners, and appeared English from the outside, but his mind is described as enjoying independence. (The implication is that this independence of mind is an American quality.) He did well at Oxford, but he was prevented from having a successful career in England because he was American. Ralph admires his father but has no aptitude for banking himself. Ralph appreciates his father's "fine ivory surface" mostly -- that is, his father's impenetrability to the ideas of others, his father's "originality" (31). Mr. Daniel Touchett has been successful because he is less pliant than many other Americans.

Ralph had worked briefly at his father's bank before he caught a violent sickness; he is a consumptive. (Today this is known as tuberculosis.) This is a deadly disease, but it is described optimistically, insofar as Ralph believes he will survive quite a few winters. He always goes abroad during the winter because of this disease. He comforts himself with the thought that he had not really had ambition to do much in his life in the first place. One winter though, he stayed too long in England, and arrived more "dead than alive" (32) in Algiers. After this scare, his attitude changed: he no longer felt he had to struggle to distinguish himself. His friends then know him as more serene. He though does still have the prospect of being in love in his future, although he has forbidden himself an "expression" of this.

Ralph Touchett converses with his mother about Isabel, and he jokes that he speaks about her like a piece of "property" (33). He asks what she means to do with her. Mrs. Touchett answers practically, when Ralph has asked the question in the abstract. Mrs. Touchett talks about buying her clothing, bringing her to Paris, and so forth. "I should like to know what you mean to do with her in a general way," Ralph responds (33).

Mrs. Touchett tells Ralph where she found Isabel. She thinks Isabel may be a "genius," but she does not yet know in what (35). Ralph asks if she is a genius in flirting, as Lord Warburton has suggested that to him, but Mrs. Touchett thinks that is not where Isabel's talents lie. Ralph delights in the idea that Isabel might be a "puzzle" to Lord Warburton. Ralph persists in asking what Mrs. Touchett plans to "do" with her, and then asks if she plans to get her to marry someone in Europe. Mrs. Touchett responds, "She's perfectly able to marry herself," implying that she does not plan on assisting her in that regard. Mrs. Touchett does not know if Isabel is already engaged.

Ralph then goes to show Isabel around the house. He watches her inspecting some of the art in their gallery, and he notes that she has "taste" and a judging eye (37). He also notes that she has a great passion for knowledge.

Isabel wants to know if there is a ghost in their mansion. Ralph responds that their house is "dismally prosaic" and that there is no romance there "but what you [Isabel] may have brought with you [her]" (38). Isabel asks if there are more people around there house, saying that she liked Ralph's father and his friend, Lord Warburton. She also likes Mrs. Touchett, she declares, because Mrs. Touchett does not expect one to like her. She goes on to assert that she likes Ralph too, even though he is the opposite of Mrs. Touchett in caring what others think of him. Isabel and Ralph conclude the conversation by agreeing that the great point is to be as happy as possible, and that one does not need to suffer.

Chapter 6

In Chapter 6, the narrator embarks on more description of Isabel's history, and other's perceptions of her. He describes Isabel as being an active young person "of many theories" (40) with a "finer mind" than most others, and a "larger perception" of facts. One of her aunts, Mrs. Varian, once started a rumor that she was writing a novel, but Isabel had never attempted to do so. She is not a novelist, for she has no talent for expression. She is not exactly a genius, but she does regard herself highly, thinking that people are right in treating her as superior. Thus the narrator says she might be guilty of the "sin of self-esteem" (41). Her actual thoughts though are described as a "tangle of vague outlines which had never been corrected by the judgment of people speaking with authority" (41) and she had her own, stubborn way in her own unclear opinions. It seems to be her philosophy that life was only worth living if one thinks well of one's self. According to her, the worst thing that could happen to her seems to be that she might cause injury to someone else. She is unaware of the evil in the world, and flattered herself that she would never sink to the dangers of inconsistency which high self-esteem often brought: "Her life should always be in harmony with the most pleasing impression she could produce; she would be what she appeared, and she would appear what she was" (42). She sometimes even imagines herself finding herself in a difficult, so that she might arise as a hero of the occasion, and prove herself. The narrator muses that Isabel might be a subject worthy of a scientific criticism were it not for her tendency to awaken the reader's tenderness.

Isabel has a friend named Henrietta Stackpole, who is a journalist and financially independent. Henrietta is representative of a progressive woman who has "clear cut views" and is very radically liberal. Isabel thinks Henrietta is proof that a woman can be independent and happy. In respect to her own independence, Isabel's "deepest" (44) thought in her mind is described as being the belief that she could give herself completely if a man should present herself as a husband, but she also finds the image "formidable" more than "attractive" (44). Her mind only hovers around this thought. She sometimes even feels that she is immodest in being so happy, thinking others less unfortunate than herself. Overall she returns to the general theory that a young woman who everyone thinks is clever needs to get a "general impression of life" (44).

Isabel and her uncle get along quite well. She asks him many questions, and he provides her with a great number of answers about British politics and manners, neighborhood gossip. Isabel wonders if his description of things accords with the descriptions in books; and he responds that he would not know, having been always interested in finding things out in their natural form. Isabel notes that the people in Europe are not very kind to girls in novels, and wonders if they will similarly abuse her. Mr. Touchett notes that he was once incorporated into a novelist's description of England in a caricatured form -- and thus, people in novels are not always depicted accurately. He also expresses to Isabel that one advantage of being an American in Europe is that one does not belong to any class, unlike Europeans, who all belong to a class. Isabel thinks she will not be successful in Europe if Europeans prove to be conventional. Mr. Touchett thinks it's already been settled that Isabel will be a "success" in Europe.


The narrator, in Chapter 6, portrays Isabel in a less flattering light. She is naïve and thinks highly of herself even though she has never been put to the test. He foreshadows that such a test though, will come, and that this test will test her philosophy that she can really appear as she really is. Will Isabel end up being a hypocrite in appearing to be something she is not?

Henry James' early and mid-career novels often bring up the "American theme" in which an American goes to Europe, bringing some freshness, innocence, money, moral Puritanism and hope to a decadent culture. These Americans are often disappointed in their expectations though. The Touchetts are depicted as an American family who are successful in Europe in spite of their American qualities. Ralph though, notably, is not quite a success. He has money and European manners, but he has not married into the aristocratic class.

When Isabel and her uncle discuss the prospect of Isabel's "success," the actual pathway to success seems unclear. It is altogether possible that Isabel conceives of such success in such abstract terms as her own like-ability, and that Mr. Touchett is thinking of it practically -- in terms of her ability to marry into the upper echelons of society, and to achieve the same respect that a European aristocrat would achieve. Isabel's mind does not seem quite capable of formulating the concrete idea of marriage, and instead her desire for love seems to be frightening to her, a very vague idea that she does not want to assume concrete form, since it might threaten her notion of independence. Either way, it is a difficult task to be "successful" in Europe, because Americans were seen as coming from a less-respected culture and a lack of tradition. Ralph's observation that Isabel has good taste in painting foreshadows that Isabel will find herself interested in European aesthetics, a conventional aspect of European culture, even while she contradictorily critiques "conventionality" in a general sense.