The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7-9

Chapter 7

Isabel and the Touchetts take to often talking about British politics and the British public. The house itself receives very few visitors, and so all these discussions are really more theoretical than based off of Isabel's own observations. Isabel finds herself often disagreeing with Mrs. Touchett on the subject of the British constitution purely because she is more sentimental than Mrs. Touchett. Isabel claims to have an "American" view, and Mrs. Touchett tells her that is a shockingly narrow idea. "My point of view, thank God, is personal!" Mrs. Touchett declares (49). Meanwhile, Isabel develops a closer relationship to Ralph, who she accuses of never treating anything seriously. He jokingly likes to paint her as representative of America, and although she fears being seen as narrow-minded, she plays along, pretending to yearn for America.

Isabel feels a bit sorry for Ralph sometimes, and she even accuses him of being a "humbug" who does not care for anything. Ralph jokes that he cares for nothing but her. The narrator comments that in fact this is not so far from the truth, as Ralph thinks about her often. Before her arrival, he had often many heavy thoughts about his ill father that burdened him. Ralph felt that life would be tasteless without his father, and he had always thought his father would outlive him. With Isabel's presence, he is less preoccupied with such dark thoughts. He decides that he is not in love with her, but that she is like the "finest work of art" (52). The question though that constantly arises in his mind though is: "What was she going to do with herself?" (53.) He decides that he wants to see for himself, whatever it may be.

One day, Lord Warburton comes to visit at Gardencourt. Isabel finds that she likes him very much, and almost begins to think of him as a "hero of romance" (55). One night, Mrs. Touchett, Ralph, Lord Warburton and Isabel are sitting in the drawing room after dinner. Mrs. Touchett stands up to go to bed and tells Isabel that she ought to bid the gentlemen good night. Isabel, without thinking, tells her aunt she would like to stay another half hour. Mrs. Touchett gives her a cold stare, reminding her that she is not in Albany. Isabel retorts, blushing, "I wish I were" (56). Mrs. Touchett decides to simply stay up until Isabel wishes to go to bed. Afterwards, Mrs. Touchett tells her it was not proper to stay in the drawing room, and Isabel tells her she does not understand it, but is glad to know it. "I always want to know the things one shouldn't do," Isabel says. The aunt asks, "So as to do them?" Isabel responds, "So as to choose" (57).

Chapter 8

Lord Warburton gets Mrs. Touchett to promise to bring Isabel to his own manor, Lockleigh. Isabel learns about Lord Warburton's family life: he has two brothers and four sisters. Isabel notes that Warburton acts as if she is an American "barbarian" (58), and he makes little allowance for her imagination or for her experience. Warburton admits to being confused in America, and believes that Americans need as much explanation in England as he had needed in America. Isabel likes Lord Warburton because he appears to have enjoyed the best things of life, but he also is not spoiled for it. He has a boyishness and kindness about him. Isabel confides in Ralph that she likes Warburton, and Ralph responds that he pities him. So he informs Isabel: "He's a man with a great position who's playing all sorts of tricks with it. He doesn’t take himself seriously…. He's the victim of a critical age; he has ceased to believe in himself and he doesn't know where to believe in…. He can neither abolish himself as a nuisance nor maintain himself as an institution" (59-60).

Isabel tells Mr. Touchett, Ralph's father, that she does not understand Ralph's opinion of Lord Warburton. Mr. Touchett responds that Lord Warburton seems to want to "do away with many things," but also to remain himself (60). He notes that there are a great many people like Lord Warburton, and he is not sure if they are trying to start a revolution. Isabel is ecstatic at the thought that there might be a revolution, declaring (in a rather anti-revolutionary fashion) that she would be on the side of the loyalists if there were such a revolution. Mr. Touchett notes that the desire for change among men such as Lord Warburton, and other radicals, is probably more theoretical than earnest. "These progressive ideas are about their biggest luxury," (62) he says.

Chapter 9

Lord Warburton's two sisters, the Misses Molyneux, come to visit Gardencourt. Isabel notes that they are very timid but also very sweet, with the charm of not being "morbid" (63). They invite her to Lockleigh during a time in which other guests will also be present. When Isabel visits them at Lockleigh, she asks if their brother, Lord Warburton, is really so radical that he would give up everything if he were put to the test. The two sisters look frightened at the prospect. Isabel then concludes that he must be an impostor. Mildred Molyneux attests that it has always been a tradition in their family to be liberal.

Isabel sees Lockleigh as a "castle in a legend" (65). She meets Lord Warburton's brother, the Vicar, who she can see as a very strong man, but whom she has difficulty imagining as a spiritual aid. The group goes on a stroll, and Lord Warburton speaks privately with Isabel during this stroll. He tells her that he finds her charming. Isabel senses that this is "the prelude to something grave" (67) and quickly utters that she does not believe she will be visiting Lockleigh again. He tells her he will visit her at Gardencourt, even though he believes Mr. Touchett does not like him being there. Lord Warburton tells Isabel that he does not feel safe with her, having the sense that she is always summing people up, and that she has mysterious purposes. Isabel tells him that she only wants to improve her mind by foreign travel. He tells her that her mind is already a formidable instrument. "It looks down on us all; it despises us," (67) he adds. Isabel tells him that he is being quite "quaint." He then seems to bitterly respond that she "judges only from the outside" and that she does not really care (68), even while she selects the great materials with which to amuse herself. He tells her he will visit her again. She responds coldly, "Just as you please" (68). Her coldness, though, is calculated, and it comes from a fear deep within her.


Isabel is likened to an aesthetic object in Ralph's imagination, described as a "fine work of art." It is interesting to read the parallel between our approach to works of art and to Isabel Archer. One typically assumes a disinterested attitude to a work of art, insofar as one sees something is beautiful without conceiving of a use for that particular work. Similarly, Ralph has no idea what Isabel is good at -- he has no idea what her genius is for. Furthermore, the title of the work is called "the portrait of a lady," which likens Isabel's life to a pictorial painting.

In the scene in the drawing room in Chapter 7, we get a first sense of how Isabel treats customs and manners that she does not understand. Mrs. Touchett thinks it is inappropriate for a young girl to stay alone with two unwed men late at night, but Isabel refuses to leave because she thinks the situation is perfectly innocent. When she finds out that such behavior is frowned upon, she is interested because it is a piece of knowledge -- not one that she will necessarily conform to, but rather one that will allow her to understand her options. This foreshadows the quality of her stubbornness: she will not behave as others want her to, but she wants to know how others want her to behave. These others will perceive her behavior though as simply doing the opposite of what they would like her to do. Chapter 8 is an analysis of Lord Warburton as a specimen of the age. He comes from a very privileged background, but he also sides theoretically with radicals rather than conservatives in terms of how the country might change for the causes of more social justice. Of course, this position is more theoretical, because the Touchetts believe Lord Warburton has such a radical opinion only because he lives in such luxury. In other words, thinking about the possibility of social change is a luxury which can contradictorily only be enjoyed from a position of privilege -- a privilege granted from the very institution which one might theoretically want to change. James is being critical of the possibility of society to really change given that the people in power do not benefit from its changing.

In Chapter 9, we see Lord Warburton is beginning to fall in love with Isabel. Isabel's reacts both naively and coldly to this prospect: she seems to fear intimacy. This reaction is a reference to an earlier description of Isabel: the narrator has told us that the "deepest" thought in her mind is that she might one day give herself wholly to a man in marriage, a prospect which she finds more "formidable" than attractive (44). The reader then begins to ask himself/herself: why is Isabel afraid of this prospect? Does she fear personal intimacy? Does she fear sexual intimacy? Does she think that she will lose her own independence?