The Portrait of a Lady

by

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Returning to the present, Ralph eagerly goes to meet his mother, Mrs. Touchett, at 7 P.M. as instructed. Mrs. Touchett is in many ways the more paternal of his parents in her distancing herself from family members, but she is nevertheless extremely fond of Ralph and insists they spend time with another. The usual arrangement is that Ralph spends three months a year with her in Florence.
Ralph adores and respects his mother, despite Mrs. Touchett’s lack of conventionally maternal behaviors. Her liberal attitudes reflect the growing women’s rights movement in America, one of many radical trends gaining traction in the nation.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
Ralph tends to be motherly in nature and takes after Mr. Touchett in this temperament. Mr. Touchett arrived in England some thirty years ago to pursue a lucrative role in the banking industry. He aspired to become accepted as a local in England but to never become truly English, valuing his American identity over European culture.
Mr. Touchett is a self-made man who wants to command respect in England without assimilating to local behaviors. He and his wife are perhaps the only American expats in the novel not captivated by English Old World sophistication, although they do appreciate certain elements of it, such as European architecture.
Themes
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Ralph is an amalgamation of his blended American and English upbringing. After earning a degree at Harvard University in the United States, he assimilated many British attitudes by then attending Oxford University in England. Ralph traveled and also worked in the banking industry for Mr. Touchett, but after falling ill with consumption, now lives a comfortable life between Gardencourt and European destinations such as Florence. Despite knowing of his certain early death, Ralph is convinced that he has a few more years ahead of him.
Despite his serious health issues, Ralph has led a charmed life of opportunity—he has experienced the best in terms of travel, education, and general luxury. His lifestyle is afforded by his father’s self-made wealth; Ralph has given up on pursuing similar money due to his approaching early death. Throughout these early chapters, it is clear that Ralph represents the Old World values of courtesy and morality as influenced by his adopted homeland, England.
Themes
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Ralph discusses his cousin Isabel with Mrs. Touchett, who admires her niece—particularly her independence—but also recognizes that Isabel is naïve to most workings of the world. For example, Isabel believes she has paid her own way to England without realizing that her aunt has covered a number of expenses. Mrs. Touchett tells Ralph that she wants Mr. Touchett to invite Isabel to stay at Gardencourt for a suitable period, before she takes her niece to visit Italy and France so that she can experience more of Europe. Mrs. Touchett is quite certain that Lord Warburton will not be able to handle her headstrong niece if the neighboring lord shows interest. At one point during their conversation, Ralph jokes that he speaks of his cousin Isabel as though she is a piece of “property.”
Mrs. Touchett is a shrewd woman with a great judge of character; she admires Isabel’s many fine qualities but also recognizing her niece’s flaws. She believes that European experiences will broaden Isabel’s horizons. Mrs. Touchett’s wise judgment of character will similarly be proved right later in the story when she warns her niece about Gilbert Osmond’s untrustworthiness, although the headstrong Isabel will not take heed. In this scene Mrs. Touchett also foresees Lord Warburton’s lack of success in courting Isabel. Ralph seems quite devoted to Isabel, though this borders on objectification when he jokes about owning his cousin.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
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After a family dinner, Isabel asks Ralph to show her his art collection that he has personally curated at Gardencourt. He suggests that they wait until the morning, when the light suits the artworks better, but Isabel is keen to see them immediately. As Ralph shows her the collection, he is affected by Isabel’s curiosity and thirst for knowledge. He judges that she has good taste in art despite her lack of familiarity in this area.
Ralph accepts Isabel’s desire to view his art collection without much argument, despite his knowledge that it would look better in the morning light. His obedience shows his growing adoration of Isabel. Ralph is an aesthete (an individual with fine taste in art) and judges some of Isabel’s character by her artistic taste, as was a social convention in Victorian Europe.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
Art and Morality Theme Icon
Isabel then surprises Ralph by asking whether there are any ghosts at Gardencourt, due to the estate’s age. He tells her only those who have suffered see ghosts; she has so far experienced a wonderful life, and he hopes it remains this way so that Isabel will never see any ghosts. He tells Isabel that in the interests of her happiness he “shall be very happy to contribute to it.”
Isabel asks about ghosts during her first visit to Gardencourt and a ghost will indeed appear during her final visit to the estate. Ralph’s promise to contribute toward Isabel’s future wellbeing is significant because he engineers Isabel’s later financial windfall, a move that is meant to secure her independence but actually leads to her downfall in ruined happiness and liberty.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Isabel reveals to Ralph that she enjoyed meeting Mr. Touchett and Lord Warburton. She also likes Mrs. Touchett, particularly because her aunt does not expect anyone to like her somewhat prickly personality. Isabel also tells Ralph that she likes him, and that she recognizes he is in many ways the opposite to his mother, for he cares greatly what other people think of him. The two cousins agree that they should live life as happily as possible.
Isabel is again very forthright in announcing her own opinions, a quality that is not shared by the traditional English women she will later meet. A great friendship has started to form between the two cousins. Isabel remains unaware that Ralph also begins to care for her romantically, a fact that is only revealed near the novel’s end.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon