The Portrait of a Lady

by

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady: Chapter 18 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Isabel and Ralph have arrived at Gardencourt to be with the ailing Mr. Touchett. Isabel finds an unknown woman playing a piano in the house. The newcomer appears French, but upon introducing herself is revealed to be an American expatriate and friend of Mrs. Touchett’s named Madame Merle. About forty years old, Merle lives in Florence and appears to Isabel a sophisticated and intelligent woman. Isabel immediately admires her very much.
Despite her American heritage, Madame Merle exhibits the sophistication and elegance that is symbolic of European Old World culture. In fact, these characteristics lead Isabel to immediately assume that Merle is French.
Themes
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
Isabel goes to ask her cousin about Madame Merle, with Ralph revealing that he was at one time in love with the older woman, although her husband was still alive at that time. He still thinks that she is “the cleverest woman [he] knows,” and knows that his mother also thinks unusually highly of Merle. Ralph states that “the husband of Madame Merle would be likely to pass away” and that Merle “fortunately” has no children. Isabel brands him as “odious.”
Isabel’s curiosity about Gardencourt’s new visitor takes her straight to Ralph, who has now replaced Mr. Touchett as her moral touchstone at Gardencourt. Ralph tells Isabel that he and his mother consider Madame Merle highly intelligent, but he then suggests that Merle is a self-determined widow who would not make a good mother. Isabel considers his behavior as merely playful, but Madame Merle’s questionable character is a topic that will rise again for Ralph and Isabel.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Ralph’s attention shifts back to his father’s poor condition. Despite the local doctor and Sir Matthew Hope’s attentions, Mr. Touchett has grown increasingly feeble and spends most of his time sleeping.
Mr. Touchett’s poor health is a key narrative plot point in the novel and Ralph is likely already making plans to convince his father to award Isabel an inheritance upon his death.
Themes
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
The following day, Mr. Touchett wakes for a while, and it is Ralph who is on watch beside him. Mr. Touchett knows his time is near and tells Ralph that he is proud of his son’s bright personality. He advises that Ralph must look after his mother once Mr. Touchett passes away and also find a worthy life interest. He also assures that his son and wife will be well-off after his death.
Mr. Touchett is unable to compliment Ralph on anything other than his fine personality, as Ralph has done little with his life due to terminal illness. Mr. Touchett charges Ralph with looking after his mother, although Mrs. Touchett has proved herself very capable of looking out for herself—even before family—throughout her lifetime. Unlike Mr. Archer, Isabel’s father, Mr. Touchett’s primary concern is that his family will be financially supported after his death.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
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Ralph alludes to a previous conversation the two men have held about Ralph needing very little money for the rest of his short and infirm life, imploring Mr. Touchett to leave a decent proportion of his wealth to “some good use.” Mr. Touchett has still left Ralph more money that he wants—in fact, “there will be enough for two”—as the elderly father desires Ralph to marry.
Ralph’s desire for the Touchett family money to go to “some good use” will later be echoed by Isabel, who vaguely hopes to put her new inheritance toward some good endeavor.
Themes
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Mr. Touchett carries on, asking Ralph what he thinks of Isabel. After jerking in surprise, Ralph laughs at Mr. Touchett’s hint that he should marry his cousin. He then admits that he adores Isabel; Mr. Touchett reveals Isabel likes Ralph too. Ralph will not approach Isabel regarding marriage because of his illness.
Ralph is shocked by his father’s recognition of Ralph’s love for Isabel. Ralph’s hesitation to approach the topic with Isabel also may be linked to her rejections of Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood; he knows that she prizes her personal freedom above all else.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Ralph would, however, like to support Isabel in her life desires. Mr. Touchett, who has also admitted his great fondness for his niece, states that he has left Isabel 5,000 pounds in his will. Ralph is pleased by his father’s intentions, but requests that more of his own inheritance is awarded to Isabel so that she will never need to marry for financial security and can always protect her personal freedom. He believes that securing her financial freedom is a worthy cause in allowing such a noble individual to carry out her desires. Ralph has also realized that his cousin is very naïve regarding finances; she does not understand how little money she has.
Despite his noble intentions to award his cousin a lifetime of financial security, Ralph’s actions here are the starting point for Isabel’s unhappy downfall. His financing of Isabel as an experiment set free in Europe without restraint is flawed from the beginning, due to Isabel’s headstrong nature and naivete.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Mr. Touchett recognizes that a legacy of some 60,000 pounds would tie Isabel to the risk of social predators targeting her money. Ralph believes this potential danger is a small price to pay for his cousin’s secured independence.
Mr. Touchett acknowledges the risk of awarding Isabel a large inheritance, as, unlike Ralph, she has not grown up with an education in wealth and its accompanying responsibilities. Ralph does not heed his father’s advice; a smaller sum or no financial inheritance at all would have saved Isabel from much unhappiness.
Themes
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon