The Portrait of a Lady

by

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady: Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Some weeks later, Madame Merle arrives at the Touchetts’ London house in Winchester Square. She sees a notice that the house is for sale. Mrs. Touchett greets her matter-of-factly despite the recent loss of Mr. Touchett. She tells her friend that she believes her husband regarded her as a good wife, and he has left her a generous legacy; Madame Merle thinks privately that Mrs. Touchett has been a selfish wife, putting her needs before those of her family.
Mrs. Touchett’s reaction to her husband’s death seems frigid and unfeeling compared to Ralph and Isabel’s anguish. Mrs. Touchett is immediately preoccupied by sorting the financial transactions that must take place now that Mr. Touchett has passed away.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Mrs. Touchett also reveals that Ralph has been left a generous inheritance, although not as much as she expected. In an extraordinary move, Mr. Touchett has gifted their niece, Isabel, a large fortune—roughly 70,000 pounds. Madame Merle is astonished by this news, raising her clasped hands and exclaiming, “Ah […] the clever creature!” Mrs. Touchett is unimpressed with Merle’s insinuation that Isabel has intentionally secured her uncle’s money. Madame Merle backs down but still regards Isabel’s inheritance as an achievement.
Mrs. Merle accidentally reveals some of her true character to Mrs. Touchett. Merle is a social predator who enjoys a luxurious lifestyle due to cleverly playing her peers for personal advantage. She is thrilled to recognize what she believes to be Isabel’s similar approach to surviving and enjoying life.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
When Madame Merle enquires about Ralph’s reaction to Isabel’s newfound fortune, Mrs. Touchett explains that her poorly son left England for warmer climates before the will was even read. However, she thinks he will be pleased, as he had always urged his father to use his money to help people in America.
Mrs. Touchett is aware that Ralph is very fond of Isabel and will be thrilled to learn of her new inheritance that will enable her to pursue her dream lifestyle. Mrs. Touchett is unaware that Ralph himself engineered the legacy.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Madame Merle requests to see Isabel, and notes the young woman’s “pale and grave” appearance. Isabel is heartbroken by the loss of Mr. Touchett and overwhelmed by her surprising inheritance. However, after some time, she comes to realize that wealth is a great blessing that will allow her “to be able to do.” Mrs. Touchett advises that Isabel must now learn how to take care of her wealth.
After being overwhelmed at her uncle’s death combined with an unexpected inheritance, Isabel begins to comprehend the enormity of her new wealth. It will allow her to pursue the personal development she has always dreamed of; furthermore, she can enable other people’s good ideas, a power she had never even entertained before.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
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Mrs. Touchett intends to follow her original plans to spend some of winter in Paris. She and Isabel leave for France, where Isabel is struck by the absurdity of American expatriates’ flaunted wealth. Isabel says so when she visits her aunt’s friend Mrs. Luce, an elderly woman who often hosts gatherings for fellow American expatriates. At one such gathering, Isabel meets Edward Rosier, an art collector whom she knew as a child. Rosier is similarly delighted to see Isabel, reminiscing on their childhoods. He remembers an incident where his maid banned the children from approaching the edge of the lake, yet Isabel would continue to do so. He recognizes this same headstrong independence in Isabel as an adult.
Clearly, Isabel’s fierce independence has developed since she was a small child as per Rosier’s lakeside memory. Her outrage at Mrs. Luce’s extravagant parties is ironic considering that in years to come, Isabel will host similar parties herself.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
In Paris, Isabel also reconnects with Henrietta Stackpole. The two spend so much time together that Mrs. Touchett suspects Henrietta’s opinions and attitudes are rubbing off too much on Isabel.
In the same way that Henrietta worries Isabel is too influenced by European culture, Mrs. Touchett worries that her niece is too influence by Henrietta’s extreme American opinions.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
As usual, Henrietta has strong judgments about everything around her. She finds Edward Rosier to be even more Europeanized than the unfortunate Ralph Touchett and lectures Rosier “on the duties of the American citizen.”
Henrietta’s patriotic behavior is quite startling in its intensity. As with Isabel, she tries to talk Rosier round to performing his American heritage.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
Henrietta is also unsettled by the great wealth that Isabel has inherited, hoping that her new money won’t “ruin” Isabel but certain that it will encourage her “dangerous tendencies.” She believes wealth will encourage her friend’s imagination without learning about life’s realities and hardships.
Henrietta’s concerns about Isabel’s new money echo Mr. Touchett’s worries in conversation with Ralph: Isabel is not ready for a sudden elevation of wealth.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Henrietta had spent her first four weeks in Paris with Mr. Bantling, benefitting from his knowledgeable insights about Parisian life. In fact, the two had “breakfasted together, dined together, gone to the theatre together, supped together, really in a manner quite lived together.” They have made plans to meet again in Italy in spring.
Isabel’s naivete is demonstrated in her false reading of Henrietta and Mr. Bantling’s compatibility. Isabel informed Ralph that the two would never be more than friends, as their personalities are worlds apart, but it is quite clear that Henrietta and Mr. Bantling are indeed romantically involved, for they “quite lived together” in Paris.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon