Near the beginning of the novel, Isabel tries to explain to Ralph why she is so drawn to her friend Henrietta, using imagery and personification in the process:
“I like the great country stretching away beyond the rivers and across the prairies, blooming and smiling, and spreading till it stops at the green Pacific! A strong, sweet, fresh odour seems to rise from it, and Henrietta—pardon my simile—has something of that odour in her garments.”
“I’m not sure the Pacific’s so green as that,” [Ralph] said; “but you’re a young woman of imagination. Henrietta, however, does smell of the Future—it almost knocks one down!”
As the imagery in this passage makes clear, Isabel associates Henrietta with not only American values but also American landscapes—“the great country stretching away beyond the rivers and across the prairies, blooming and smiling” with “a strong, sweet, fresh odour.” When Isabel states that Henrietta “has something of that odour in her garments,” she is using imagery to communicate that, in her mind, Henrietta represents her favorite American qualities, which, as her descriptions suggest, are centered on freedom and endless expansion.
Ralph’s response builds off of Isabel’s imagery to communicate his lack of regard for these same American values. The first part of his response(“I’m not sure the Pacific’s so green as that”) shows that he doesn’t think as highly of the United States as Isabel does. The second part (“Henrietta, however, does smell of the Future—it almost knocks one down!”) signals that, while he acknowledges Henrietta’s modern American qualities (such as prioritizing individual liberty and doing whatever she pleases), he isn’t necessarily fond of them.
When Lord Warburton proposes to Isabel, the narrator captures the intensity of his feelings for the young American woman using imagery and a simile:
“I don’t make mistakes about such things; I’m a very judicious animal. I don’t go off easily, but when I’m touched, it’s for life. It’s for life, Miss Archer, it’s for life,” Lord Warburton repeated in the kindest, tenderest, pleasantest voice Isabel had ever heard, and looking at her with eyes charged with the light of a passion that had sifted itself clear of the baser parts of emotion—the heat, the violence, the unreason—and that burned as steadily as a lamp in a windless place.
The imagery here—“the kindest, tenderest, pleasantest voice Isabel had ever heard,” “eyes charged with the light of a passion that had sifted itself clear of the baser parts of emotion,” “the heat, the violence, the unreason”—comes together to communicate to readers the depth of Lord Warburton’s feelings for Isabel as well as her tender feelings toward him.
The simile furthers this point by describing how Lord Warburton’s eyes “burned as steadily as a lamp in a windless place.” Just like the flame in the lamp, Lord Warburton’s feelings for Isabel are steady and strong. The fact that Isabel ends up rejecting Lord Warburton’s proposal after this moment of shared passion for each other captures for readers Isabel’s even stronger passion for her independence and freedom.
After Ralph learns that Isabel is going to marry Osmond, the narrator captures Ralph’s despair using a simile and imagery:
Ralph was shocked and humiliated; his calculations had been false and the person in the world in whom he was most interested was lost. He drifted about the house like a rudderless vessel in a rocky stream, or sat in the garden of the palace on a great cane chair, his long legs extended, his head thrown back and his hat pulled over his eyes. He felt cold about the heart; he had never liked anything less.
Describing Ralph as “drift[ing] about the house like a rudderless vessel in a rocky stream,” the narrator offers readers a clear visual of Ralph’s agony—they can picture him wandering around the house, bumping into this or that, completely distracted by his distress. The other imagery here—the description of Ralph’s hat being “pulled over his eyes” as well as the fact that he “felt cold about the heart”—also helps readers understand just how devastated Ralph is.
Part of the reason Ralph is so upset is because he is indirectly responsible for Isabel’s engagement. In encouraging his father Mr. Touchett to leave Isabel a large sum of money when he died, Ralph wanted to free her from the need to marry but instead made her the target of manipulative money-seeking people like Osmond.
Near the end of the novel, Osmond explains to Isabel why he wants to send Pansy back to the Swiss convent where she spent much of her childhood, using imagery in the process:
“One’s daughter should be fresh and fair; she should be innocent and gentle. With the manners of the present time she is liable to become so dusty and crumpled. Pansy’s a little dusty, a little dishevelled; she has knocked about too much. This bustling, pushing rabble that calls itself society—one should take her out of it occasionally. Convents are very quiet, very convenient, very salutary. I like to think of her there, in the old garden, under the arcade, among those tranquil virtuous women.”
Osmond’s descriptive language here—that Pansy “should be fresh and fair” rather than “dusty and crumpled”—hints at how he views Pansy (as well as Isabel and women generally) as objects or pieces of art rather than people. The fact that Osmond repeats his language—calling her “dusty” again a moment later, as well as “disheveled”—underlines that he views her as he does his art, which he must constantly protect from dust and other forms of mess.
The scene that Osmond paints of Pansy in the convent—“I like to think of her there, in the old garden, under the arcade, among those tranquil virtuous women”—also reads as a static painting rather than a dynamic vision for his daughter’s life. Osmond's imagery is all about the visual, or about appearances—he does not think of how happy Pansy will be, but of how she will look in this idyllic scene.