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 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Ralph wanders away as Mr. Touchett and Lord Warburton talk further. He is unaware that a tall young woman in a black dress is standing in a doorway, observing him. He suddenly notices her because of his dog, who bounds over to her excitedly. Isabel handles the exuberant dog with great confidence and friendliness, and Ralph moves to greet her. She is the object of the men’s conversation: Ralph’s cousin, Isabel Archer, has arrived to Gardencourt.
Isabel intrudes on the masculine scene and immediately calls attention. She is a beautiful figure who is framed in a doorway, as though a portrait. The excited dog fawning over Isabel outwardly portrays Ralph’s interior thrill at meeting his enchanting cousin. Isabel is the picture of composure in her new setting, assuredly assessing the other characters and meeting Ralph and the dog with great ease. Such confidence is typical of American New World values.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
Isabel informs Ralph that his mother, Mrs. Touchett, has retired immediately to her rooms upon arrival, and would like Ralph to meet with her at 7 P.M. Isabel also explains why she has never met the Touchetts before, due a disagreement between Isabel’s father and his sister-in-law, Ralph’s mother. Ralph gallantly replies that he does not pay attention to his mother’s quarrels; Isabel assures him that Mrs. Touchett has been very kind to her, taking her under her wing, although the young woman tells Ralph that she “is very fond of her liberty.”
Upon meeting her cousin, Isabel drives conversation. Ralph has already learned of Isabel’s independence through his mother’s telegram, but Isabel asserts this independence herself. She acknowledges Mrs. Touchett’s kindness in inviting her to England but does not feel beholden to her aunt because of it. Mrs. Touchett’s decision to retreat to her rooms rather than greet her husband suggests a tense marriage.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Isabel exclaims at the identity of the other two men on the lawn, Mr. Touchett and Lord Warburton, declaring that she hoped she would meet a lord in England. Upon meeting them, she is charmed by the kind Mr. Touchett, the impressive Lord Warburton, and furthermore by Gardencourt’s delightful features and atmosphere. The three men are altogether thrilled to meet such an energetic and engaging young woman. So is Ralph’s collie dog, which he jokingly offers to give to Isabel. The cousins laughingly agree to share custody.
Isabel’s stereotypical opinions of England are confirmed by a nobleman’s presence at Gardencourt. She is thrilled to experience traditional English culture and the three gentlemen are similarly thrilled to meet the lively young American woman. Ralph’s gesture in offering shared ownership of his dog to Isabel foreshadows his later decision to share his financial inheritance with her.
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 then moves away with Isabel, leaving Lord Warburton to tell Ralph that Isabel is exactly the type of “interesting woman” that the nobleman has been waiting to meet. Indeed, all of the men have been enchanted by Isabel’s charismatic appearance.
Warburton’s revelation that this is the type of woman he was just discussing with Ralph and Touchett suggests his romantic interest in Isabel, as the three men were speaking about marriage. Ralph’s awkward generosity may also suggest romantic interest, or at least the beginnings of adoration, for his cousin.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Get the entire The Portrait of a Lady LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Portrait of a Lady PDF