60 pages 2 hours read

Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1881

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Summary and Study Guide


The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James, is considered one of the most important novels written in English. It was published first in serial form between 1880 and 1881, and later revised for another edition in 1908. The novel details the experience of a young American woman, Isabel Archer, who travels to Europe. She is committed to her freedom, rejecting two marriage proposals. After she inherits an unexpected fortune, she falls victim to the machinations of two antagonists—Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond—as well as to her own insistence on loyalty and justice. The novel explores The Politics of Marriage, The Interplay Between Freedom and Gender, and The Expatriate Experience and Cultural Belonging. James was a key figure in the literary realism typical of the Victorian period, but his work also increasingly included techniques of early Modernism. Portrait is an important bridge between the two literary traditions: It includes verisimilitude and detailed representations of social class, as well as abstract representations of its characters’ states of mind.

This guide is based on the 2009 Oxford University Press edition edited by Roger Luckhurst.

Plot Summary

The Portrait of a Lady centers around Isabel Archer, a young American who is committed to her liberty and eager to experience the world. At the opening of the novel, Mrs. Touchett, Isabel’s aunt, escorts her to England with plans to continue on to Europe. They arrive at Gardencourt, the home of Mr. Touchett, an American who has lived in England for 30 years and enjoyed success in banking. Isabel also meets her cousin, Ralph, who is sick with tuberculosis.

An acquaintance of Isabel’s, journalist Henrietta Stackpole, arrives in England and is invited to Gardencourt. She brings news that an American, Caspar Goodwood, who had previously expressed an interest in Isabel, has followed her to Europe. Isabel is annoyed both at the pushiness of this gesture and Henrietta’s encouragement of him.

A neighbor, Lord Warburton, spends time at Gardencourt and falls in love with Isabel. While she acknowledges his goodness and the opportunity marriage to him offers, she rejects his proposal to preserve her liberty.

Henrietta, Ralph, and Isabel travel to London. Henrietta helps Caspar decide to visit Isabel while she is alone in the hotel. Caspar tells Isabel he doesn’t accept her rejection of his proposal, which occurred before she left New York. She again tells him she doesn’t want to marry him and will likely never marry at all.

After receiving a telegram saying that Mr. Touchett is ill, Ralph and Isabel return to Gardencourt while Henrietta remains in London. Henrietta has met a friend of Ralph’s, Mr. Bantling, and proceeds to travel with him. Staying at Gardencourt is Madame Merle, a friend of Mrs. Touchett’s who lives in Florence. Isabel is immediately in awe of the older woman, and they become friends. While it is not revealed until much later in the narrative, Madame Merle had an affair with Isabel’s eventual husband, Gilbert Osmond, and is the real mother of his daughter, Pansy. Ralph asks his father to leave Isabel a fortune, so that she will be able to exercise the independence she seeks. He agrees, then dies. Isabel accompanies Mrs. Touchett to Paris, then to San Remo, Italy, where Ralph is spending the winter, then to Florence.

Madame Merle tells Gilbert about Isabel and the fortune she has inherited. She tells her former lover that she thinks he should marry Isabel, then introduces them. Gilbert begins to visit Isabel frequently, and she isn’t immediately able to decide what she thinks of him. Isabel also spends time with Gilbert’s sister, Countess Gemini, who is suspicious of her brother, and his daughter, Pansy, who is innocent and extremely obedient.

Mrs. Touchett, Countess Gemini, and Ralph all express concern about Gilbert’s interest in Isabel. Henrietta, Mr. Bantling, Ralph, and Isabel travel to Rome. Isabel has told Gilbert about the planned trip, and he arrives in the city after the rest of the group. By chance, they meet Lord Warburton in the city as well. He tells Isabel that he has been attempting to distract himself from her with travel but has failed. He promises to act as a friend to her, but ultimately leaves Rome after seeing her with Gilbert and being unable to let go of his feelings for her. Gilbert decides Isabel is worth more in his estimation after learning that a Lord had previously proposed to, and been rejected by, her. Before returning to Florence, Gilbert tells Isabel he’s in love with her.

The narrator summarizes the passage of a year, in which Isabel travels first with Mrs. Touchett then with Madame Merle, then returned to Rome where Gilbert joined them for three weeks. Isabel returns to Florence and is visited by Caspar. She had sent him a letter informing him of her engagement to Gilbert, and he has come to see if it’s true, and why. Mrs. Touchett, Ralph, and Countess Gemini each converse with Isabel about her engagement and attempt to dissuade her from marrying Gilbert.

The narrative jumps forward in time several years. Gilbert and Isabel are unhappily married. Edward (Ned) Rosier, whom Isabel knew years earlier during one of her visits to Europe with her father, is in love with a now 19-year-old Pansy. Ned asks Madame Merle to appeal to the Osmonds to help him marry Pansy. Though Isabel sympathizes with Ned and believes he and Pansy care for each other, Gilbert rejects Ned over his lack of wealth. Ralph, whose health has declined, and Lord Warburton arrive in Rome. Lord Warburton expresses interest in Pansy, and Gilbert instructs Isabel to use her influence to ensure that Warburton proposes to her.

Isabel begins to wonder if Lord Warburton is really in love with Pansy, or if he still has romantic feelings for her. She reflects on her unhappiness and the fact that Gilbert seems to hate her. Lord Warburton departs for England, and Gilbert blames Isabel for preventing his marriage to Pansy.

Both Henrietta and Caspar arrive in Rome. Caspar visits the Osmonds’ home several times and attempts to discern whether Isabel is happy. As Ralph’s condition deteriorates, he decides to return to England. Henrietta and Caspar both escort him.

Ned continues to attempt to become acceptable as a spouse for Pansy. After he sells his possessions to amass more wealth, Gilbert sends Pansy back to the convent to keep her out of Ned’s way. Isabel gradually realizes that Madame Merle’s machinations led to her marriage to Gilbert. Countess Gemini tells Isabel that Pansy is actually the daughter of Gilbert and Madame Merle, not Gilbert’s first wife.

After learning that Ralph is dying, Isabel tells Gilbert she is returning to England, and they argue. She travels despite his wishes. At Gardencourt, she speaks with Ralph, and they reconcile after a period of distance that began with her engagement to Gilbert. Ralph dies. Lord Warburton, then Caspar, visits Gardencourt. Caspar tells Isabel she should leave her husband and be with him, then he violently kisses her. Two days later, he goes to Henrietta in London hoping to find Isabel. Henrietta tells him she has already left for Rome to go back to her husband. She advises him to wait, and the novel ends in a state of ambiguity about Isabel’s future.

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