The Portrait of a Lady

by

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady: Chapter 54 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Isabel arrives at Gardencourt, where the servants instruct her to wait for Mrs. Touchett in the gallery. She spends her time in the gallery considering whether she would have married Caspar Greenwood if her aunt had never discovered her at her grandmother’s house in Albany, thus never inviting her to England.
Isabel still tends to overly rely on her imagination, dreaming of scenarios that are no longer possible. Her arrival back to Gardencourt brings the story full circle, as this is where James first introduced Isabel.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Mrs. Touchett greets Isabel in the gallery. Isabel’s aunt has visibly aged but is as sharp as ever. She explains that she has been sitting at Ralph’s bedside, or she would have come to Isabel earlier. Ralph’s condition is dire. Mrs. Touchett laments that her son has experienced an unsuccessful life, but Isabel contends it has been a “beautiful” one.
Isabel, still a naïve idealist, views Ralph’s life as “beautiful” because he has lived it with integrity. Mrs. Touchett, however, is extremely practical and believes her son has not achieved any successes in wealth or marriage.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Art and Morality Theme Icon
Mrs. Touchett also informs Isabel that Lord Warburton is back at Lockleigh, and furthermore engaged to be married to a noblewoman. The older woman seems dismayed at Isabel’s genuine pleasure for her friend. Mrs. Touchett asks Isabel if she now wishes she had married the nobleman, an idea that Isabel rejects. Mrs. Touchett also asks Isabel how she feels about Madame Merle; Isabel replies that she does not like her as much she previously did, but it is of no matter, for Merle is returning to live in America. Isabel tells her aunt that she now recognizes Merle treated Isabel as a “convenience.”
Mrs. Touchett ignores social convention as usual, directly questioning her niece on some very personal matters. Isabel’s description of herself as Merle’s “convenience” represents the easy way in which Merle has manipulated Isabel for her own desires.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Isabel visits Ralph in his room, where he lies for three days without speaking. On the third day, he feels better, telling Isabel that she has been like an “angel” at his bedside. He is concerned that Isabel has defied Osmond to visit him. However, Isabel tells Ralph that he has “been everything” to her. She wishes that she could sacrifice herself for him to live. Ralph convinces her that she will never lose him, for he’ll always remain with her. He also advises that “in life there’s love.”
Isabel is once more likened to an angelic figure, having previously been viewed as a guardian angel by Lord Warburton and Pansy. However, she finds it difficult to see those she cares for in pain and even offers to take Ralph’s place if she could. Ralph is gallant and kind as ever despite his approaching death, comforting Isabel with his love and advice.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
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Isabel tentatively asks Ralph if it is true that he is the reason she became a wealthy woman. Ralph admits it is so and that his actions “ruined” her. Isabel confirms that Osmond was originally quite in love with her, but that he only married her because she was rich. The cousins agree that in Isabel’s desire to live a life of extraordinary freedoms, she has been dearly penalized by being “ground in the very mill of the conventional.” Ralph states that she must stay on at Gardencourt, with Isabel reassuring him that she will be there as long as it seems suitable.
Isabel and Ralph finally talk openly about her unhappy marriage to Osmond. Isabel’s existence in the soul-destroying “mill” of mediocrity is the opposite of she and Ralph’s hopes for her life to be founded on extraordinary experiences and unfettered liberties.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Ralph reminds Isabel that if she has experienced hatred in her life so far, she has also been greatly loved and adored. Isabel, in tears, addresses Ralph as her brother.
Ralph demonstrates his Old World wisdom and kindness in also focusing on the joys that Isabel has also experienced in life.
Themes
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon