The Portrait of a Lady


Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady: Chapter 7 Summary & Analysis

Isabel and Mr. Touchett continue to entertain themselves by discussing British attitudes and conventions. Isabel learns nothing from British people themselves, as Gardencourt is a quiet estate due to Mrs. Touchett’s isolating tendencies, and Mr. Touchett and Ralph’s ill health.
James continues to emphasize Isabel’s appetite to learn about European customs. He acknowledges that Gardencourt is not typical of English culture, due to the Touchett family’s reclusiveness in sickness and desired social isolation.
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Isabel also spends more time with Ralph, finding her cousin to be very amusing and witty. Ralph adores Isabel, even if he is sometimes surprised at her bold manner. Before her arrival he had been focused on worrying about his father’s ill health, but he now has a new zest for life due to his cousin’s presence. He compares Isabel to the “finest work of art,” but tells himself that he is not falling in love with her. He also wonders what the future will hold for such a fascinating and unique young woman.
Ralph’s description of Isabel as a work of art parallel’s the novel’s titular description of Isabel’s character (the title, of course, being “The Portrait of a Lady”). Ralph furthermore views Isabel as an experiment and is desperate to see what such a unique woman will do with her life. He resists acting on his romantic love for Isabel; Ralph knows he cannot offer her the promise of a future together due to his terminal illness. His wisdom and compassion in this regard are evidence of his fine morality, although this is somewhat tempered by his viewing of Isabel as an object.
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The neighboring Lord Warburton is invited to stay at Gardencourt for two nights. Greatly enjoying his company, Isabel is shocked when Mrs. Touchett forbids her from sitting alone with Warburton and Ralph after dinner. Mrs. Touchett explains that it is not proper for a woman to behave so. Isabel does not understand the reasoning behind this practice, but is glad for her aunt to teach her about such customs. She wants to learn as much as possible about the ways of the world so that she can then make educated decisions as to her beliefs and actions.
For the first time, Mrs. Touchett adheres strictly to social convention. Isabel is shocked by this irrational convention but happy to learn about it. The scene demonstrates the social freedoms that Victorian men could participate in compared to the social restrictions placed on Victorian women.
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