One day, after returning from a meeting with Osmond, Isabel chances upon Ralph in the garden of his mother’s home. He appears to be sleeping; Isabel finds the scene to be a visual delight. However, her growing frustrations at Ralph’s lack of refusal to discuss her engagement stirs her anger. She keeps reminding herself of his frail physical health.
Isabel finds it difficult to check her headstrong opinions around Ralph, for she is used to frank conversations with her cousin.
As Isabel approaches Ralph in the garden, he stirs and comments that was just thinking of her at that moment. To Isabel’s great relief, they finally discuss her engagement. Ralph states that he cannot share his feelings about her engagement to Osmond unless she breaks it off; otherwise he will be speaking rudely of her husband, which is socially unacceptable. This comment alone irritates Isabel.
Isabel and Ralph finally re-connect in meaningful conversation in the garden, which reminds readers of Gardencourt, the Touchett family estate where both cousins feel comfortable and at peace. Ralph’s courteous English mannerisms at first prevent him from speaking poorly of Isabel’s fiancé.
Ralph does go on to speak his true feelings on the engagement. He trusts Isabel but he does not trust Osmond. Ralph believes that Osmond is a “small” man who has trapped Isabel into an unfavorable marriage, which Ralph likens to a “cage.” Isabel responds that there is no danger if she likes the cage. She thinks that her cousin’s criticism of Osmond as “small” is unfounded.
Ralph also reveals that he thought that Isabel would “marry a man of more importance.” All that Osmond has going for him is his taste; on the whole, he is an idle man with no prospects. He describes Isabel as having been a beautiful creature of flight who has now “fallen” to the ground. Isabel is confused by his impression of her.
Ralph reiterates Osmond’s inadequacy, particularly criticizing the man’s lack of productive activity (perhaps a bit rich, coming from the idle Ralph, although he is dealing with a terminal illness). Having likened Isabel to a “caged” animal, he now compares her to a “fallen” creature of flight; her unique spirit has been brought down to an unexceptional level.
Finally, Ralph accidentally admits that he has secretly always loved Isabel. Isabel is shocked and angry at this revelation. Realizing his error, Ralph tells Isabel that he knows there is no hope for them; because of his illness, he has always refused any thoughts of pursuing her.
Isabel is upset at the admission that her beloved cousin is now another man on a list of suitors she did not want.
Isabel defends her relationship with Osmond, finding herself wholly attracted to her fiancé and his values. She finds Osmond’s lack of importance attractive. She is also fascinated by her husband’s apparent worldliness and sophistication.
Isabel is more persuasive in her conviction to marry Osmond compared to when she previously tried to justify her actions to Mrs. Touchett. Unfortunately, she will come to learn that Osmond’s supposedly admirable principles are a farce; he lives for himself and his art only and has married Isabel for her wealth.
Ralph realizes that he cannot change Isabel’s mind. He believes that she has wrongly invested her time and emotion in Osmond because the man wears “his very poverties dressed out as honors.” Ralph is sickened by his sudden understanding that he has facilitated Isabel’s mistake by convincing his father to leave her a great fortune, thereby attracting the attention of a social predator such as Osmond.
Ralph realizes the enormity of his actions in enacting Isabel’s downfall. He rightly guesses that Isabel has accepted Osmond’s hand in marriage because she believes she will have power in their relationship to enact her will and to fund Osmond’s seemingly noble yet largely moneyless lifestyle.
Isabel is firm in her conviction to marry Osmond. Ralph feels terrible for her situation but knows he is too late to do anything about it. Isabel says that she no longer trusts her cousin and that she will never come to him in future if she is in fact in real trouble.
A huge rift develops between the cousins, with Isabel devastated by Ralph’s refusal to endorse her engagement, while Ralph is furious at Isabel’s resolute intent to undertake a disadvantageous marriage.