The Portrait of a Lady

by

Henry James

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Portrait of a Lady can help.

The Portrait of a Lady: Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mrs. Touchett comes to agree that her niece was correct in refusing Lord Warburton’s marriage proposal if Isabel does not love him. Isabel departs Gardencourt for London with Henrietta and Ralph. The women stay at a comfortable inn while Ralph prefers his father’s house in Winchester Square, despite there being no cook. At his lodgings, Ralph finds himself thinking of Isabel fondly. He knows that she is an “idle pursuit” without hope for a future together, but he is continually enchanted by his cousin—as she experiences London, she is full of “premises, conclusions, emotions” and “brave theories.”
Mrs. Touchett does not necessarily understand her niece’s motivations in refusing Lord Warburton, but can accept that it was not a love match. Meanwhile, Ralph’s adoration for—even obsession with—Isabel is growing. He is largely blind to her character flaws. Isabel will remain similarly unaware of Gilbert Osmond’s flaws when she begins to fall in love with his invented persona.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Isabel, meanwhile, is feeling guilty and pained at her interactions with Lord Warburton before she left for London. She reproaches herself for behaving in a “graceless” manner, but consoles herself with the fact that it had to be done, and that she now feels “a feeling of freedom which in itself was sweet.”
Isabel is extremely contrary in nature. She felt firmly righteous in rejecting Lord Warburton’s advances, but now questions her behavior in the matter, before quickly convincing herself that she acted in the only manner possible. She is again elated at exerting and affirming her independence by rejecting a powerful man’s marriage proposal.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
During their time in London, Henrietta desires to see “some of the leading minds of the present.” Ralph therefore invites his old bachelor friend, Mr. Bantling, to dine with them at Winchester Square. Forty years old, Bantling is a good-natured and social personality who enjoys the company of all, particularly Henrietta, and he enjoys her rant as he walks with her after dinner. Upon hearing that Gardencourt has been very dull for the journalist, he insists that she must visit his sister, Lady Pensil, who entertains individuals of interest and can showcase some “genuine English sport” for Henrietta. Mr. Bantling promises to prioritize his securing an invitation for Henrietta to meet Lady Pensil.
Henrietta is again aligned with the radical “Future” as she wants to meet “leading minds” in London. Mr. Bantling represents European Old World values in all ways except for his enjoyment of Henrietta’s heavy-handed personality. Throughout the novel Lady Pensil will remain a stock character who represents the idle pursuits of English nobility, for she thrives on social entertainment.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Henrietta also greatly enjoys Mr. Bantling’s obliging company and is keen to visit Lady Pensil. However, she takes her leave of the gentleman as she has made arrangements to meet with two American friends for dinner. Mr. Bantling offers to accompany her to her destination to ensure her safety on the road.
A great friendship has been formed between Henrietta and Mr. Bantling. Despite their opposite personalities, the two will continue to get on very well and move beyond platonic attachment.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
Get the entire The Portrait of a Lady LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Portrait of a Lady PDF
Ralph and Isabel are left sitting together at Winchester House. Ralph thinks that Henrietta and Mr. Bantling get on very well and speculates that they could have a romantic future, while Isabel is certain that they will not be a good couple because they do not understand another. Ralph wryly responds that a “mutual misunderstanding” is the foundation of many marriages. Furthermore, he views Mr. Bantling as a “simple organism,” while Isabel believes “Henrietta’s a simpler one still.” Logically, the match might work.
Again, Ralph demonstrates a good judge of character as he correctly predicts that Henrietta and Mr. Bantling will become romantically involved. Ralph’s view of marriage as a “mutual misunderstanding” could very well echo that of James himself, who never married and seems to criticize the institution throughout his work; The Portrait fails to showcase even one harmonious marriage.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Ralph suggests he dine with his cousin, but Isabel wants to return to the inn on her own to eat a simple dinner. She instructs Ralph that he should dine at his club. Ralph asks why they cannot eat together; Isabel replies simply that she doesn’t care for it, but Ralph suggests she is actually expecting another visitor this evening. He suspects she will meet with Caspar Goodwood, although Isabel in unaware that he knows of her American suitor. Isabel in fact is merely tired and wants a simple evening alone.
Ralph’s suspicions about Isabel’s movements suggest that he is jealous of her potential interactions with a suitor. By now readers are quite certain that Ralph is in love with Isabel, although she has no idea.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Ralph hesitantly tells his cousin that he knows about Lord Warburton’s marriage proposal, asking why Isabel rejected it. He is surprised by Isabel’s rejection because he views Warburton as an extremely advantageous match in fortune, status, and personality. Isabel thinks that Ralph wants her to marry the nobleman, but he replies that he simply has a great interest in observing and understanding her actions. He is now quite thrilled to see “what a young lady does who won’t marry Lord Warburton.” Isabel states that she is similar to Henrietta in that she does not want to marry until she has “seen Europe.”
The besotted Ralph is also unhappy that Isabel has not confided in him about Lord Warburton’s marriage proposal. However, he is thrilled that she turned the nobleman down and now views Isabel as a kind of experiment about to be set free in Europe. Isabel has used her future European travels as another reason she cannot give up her personal freedom to marry Warburton or Goodwood.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
When Isabel deems it time to return to the inn, Ralph offers to find her a cab and to accompany her to the inn. She allows the former, but refuses his escort, stating that he is tired and must get some rest. He reveals that he is often inconvenienced when people forget that he is unwell, but it is event worse when they remember it, as Isabel has demonstrated just now.
Isabel again turns down Ralph’s offers to escort her to her hotel, further raising his suspicions about a likely meeting with Goodwood. In a rare moment, Ralph voices his resentment toward his terminal illness.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon