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 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Still in a flashback, the narrator states that Lilian is the eldest of the Archer sisters and known for being “the practical one,” Edith is regarded as the prettiest of the three, and Isabel is known for being highly intelligent. When Isabel tells Lilian about Mrs. Touchett’s unexpected visit, Lilian hopes that their aunt will invite Isabel to visit Europe. She tells her husband, a lawyer named Edmund, that this would give Isabel the chance to develop through new experiences. Lilian hopes that Isabel would also find a husband in Europe.
As per Victorian gender norms, the Archer women are stereotyped as one-dimensional characters by their peers. Isabel’s bookish image reflects her curious and intelligent character, but James has already shown she has much more depth as an individual. Sensible Lilian is already married and wishes the same companionship and financial security for her youngest sister. She also recognizes that the clever Isabel would greatly benefit from the sophisticated experiences that Europe can offer.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Isabel reflects on her upbringing, noting she has already had a number of opportunities in life, including a largely self-directed education and an opportunity to travel abroad with her father. The narrator reveals that alongside Mr. Archer’s financial recklessness, he largely left the care of his three daughters to their governesses. Many people are critical of him for his lack of family responsibility, although Isabel does not feel this way at all. She desires to live her life freely in much the same way that her father did.
Contrary to popular opinion, Isabel is grateful for the independence that she experienced through her unconventional upbringing. She doesn’t seem to realize that her liberties are about to become greatly restricted due to her lack of any financial income. Her financial foolhardiness can be compared to her father’s reckless attitude toward money and family.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
A self-directed education means that Isabel is very intelligent. She has learned a great deal from books, although “hated to be thought bookish,” preferring instead to learn from experience. She remembers that many of her sister Edith’s suitors seemed intimidated to speak with her, likely because of her intimidating intelligence.
Isabel is clearly intelligent and well-read—however, she lacks the wisdom of real-world experience. This naivety will later prove her downfall in happiness and prosperity.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
While thinking about the possibility of Mrs. Touchett inviting Isabel to England, Caspar Goodwood arrives at the house. He is a Boston cotton-mill businessman and has been pursuing Isabel’s hand in marriage. She admires him greatly but does not wish to marry him. After half an hour, he leaves without having persuaded Isabel to accept his marriage proposal. However the narrator notes that he is a forceful personality and will not accept defeat easily.
Although Isabel is seemingly embarrassed at Edith’s suitors’ unwillingness to interact with her, she is not without romantic options: Goodwood, a wealthy man of influence, wants to marry her. Because Isabel values her personal liberty and hasn’t recognized her financial vulnerability, she turns down his proposal in a move that her family and peers would consider unwise. Goodwood’s resolve to continue courting Isabel demonstrates his American New World tenacity.
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
Get the entire The Portrait of a Lady LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Portrait of a Lady PDF