The Portrait of a Lady

by

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The novel flashes back to Mrs. Touchett and Isabel’s meeting one another in America. Mrs. Touchett is a pragmatic and self-serving woman who has accomplished a “great deal of good,” although “she never pleased.” In a rather extraordinary arrangement, she resides in Italy while her Mr. Touchett lives in England; Mrs. Touchett realized early on in their marriage that she and her new husband wanted different things from life, but cited her dislike of English culture as the reason for her move. She also visits the United States each year to attend to her personal affairs, such as her investments. On this trip, she has returned to America with the express desire to meet her youngest niece, Isabel Archer, since Mrs. Touchett’s brother-in-law, Isabel’s father, has recently passed away, and her sister is long deceased.
Despite the focus so far on Isabel’s character, James now describes Mrs. Touchett as an unusual and fascinating woman in her own right. She ignores convention by living independently from her husband and son as well as by attending to her own financial investments. She is another example of an American expatriate who now largely resides in Europe, and claims to prefer Italian life over English culture. It seems quite unusual for Mrs. Touchett to have taken Isabel under her wing; perhaps her niece’s similarly headstrong character appeals to Mrs. Touchett.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Mrs. Touchett finds Isabel at the young woman’s grandmother’s house in Albany, New York. Isabel is reading a book in the library, a room that she romanticizes and has loved since her childhood. It is clear she has a great love of reading and a strong imagination. Isabel is comfortable in just her own company, and shocked at the intrusion of the older woman who she realizes must be her “crazy Aunt Lydia” that she has never met. Mrs. Touchett replies in a no-nonsense fashion that she has never had a single delusion.
James further cements Mrs. Touchett as a strong-willed woman who speaks her opinions frankly and acts on them as she sees fit. He reveals Isabel as a curious individual who learns about life by reading. Isabel is also satisfied with her current circumstances, despite lacking significant wealth, and is furthermore free-spirited in opinion like her aunt. Both women embrace the radical New World values of forthrightness and liberty.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Mrs. Touchett explains that she had a falling out with Isabel’s father because of the unconventional manner in which he raised his daughters. She has some knowledge of Isabel and her two sisters, Lilian and Edith, and desires to know that their future is provided for now that they are parentless. She asks Isabel how much she will receive once Mr. Archer’s home is sold for his daughters’ benefit. Isabel replies that she has little idea about the property’s worth. Mrs. Touchett finds her niece’s financial unawareness to be exceptionally strange, although not unexpected, as Mr. Archer was known to be financially irresponsible.
Mrs. Touchett is far more concerned with Isabel’s prospects than Isabel herself is, demonstrating the young woman’s naivety about real world practicalities. Marriage was the only course of action for a parentless Victorian woman with no inheritance or career prospects; Isabel has neither, yet is happily ignorant of her financial vulnerability.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Mrs. Touchett suggests that Mr. Archer’s home is unimpressive and will be pulled down to create shopping space when it is sold. Isabel fervently hopes this will not be the case, as she adores her family house and the memories it holds.
Isabel again demonstrates her naïve and idealistic mindset, favoring nostalgic attachments over real-world predicaments. This naivety is a vulnerability that will later cause significant heartbreak during her travels through Europe.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
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Isabel and Mrs. Touchett talk for an hour longer, with Isabel mentioning that she would one day like to visit Florence with her aunt, although she could not promise to be obedient to her aunt’s every wish. Isabel finds her to be Mrs. Touchett to be an unusual and fascinating figure, while Mrs. Touchett recognizes her niece as intelligent and bold character.
Despite their contrasting attitudes toward money, James again highlights the similarities between Mrs. Touchett and Isabel as liberal and opinionated women who contradict Victorian social norms.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon