Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady describes the formative years of Isabel Archer, a spirited and idealistic American woman who travels to Europe from her home state of New York in order to experience the sophisticated culture of countries such as England, France, and Italy. Isabel is a young woman of no means who has so far happily partaken in life with a will to exercise her personal liberty in all regards, and she wants to continue enjoying this distinctively American brand of individualism during her European travels. However, her personal responsibilities are complicated when her cousin in England, Ralph Touchett, convinces his dying father, Mr. Touchett, to leave Isabel a large inheritance in his will. Ralph hopes that gifting his beloved cousin financial independence will allow her to always make own choices in life. Although wealth has afforded many of Isabel’s European peers favorable opportunities, it soon becomes apparent that Isabel’s social status as a relative nobody offered her more liberties than her newfound wealth does. Unforeseen wealth ultimately endangers Isabel’s independence by tying her to increased social responsibilities.
Wealth initially seems favorable, as it affords many of the The Portrait’s characters great opportunities in lifestyle and social status. For example, wealth has afforded Isabel’s suitors Caspar Goodwood and Lord Warburton power and charisma due to their privileged upbringings in industrialist and aristocratic families, respectively. Meanwhile, Mr. Touchett has been able to provide Mrs. Touchett and Ralph with luxurious lifestyles due to his success in banking. Ralph Touchett expects Isabel will benefit in the same way from her new windfall. Indeed, wealth initially enables Isabel to dream of diverse ways to use her money ethically. This is more than she had previously hoped for during her less exciting yet contented years in America, where she felt fulfilled through pursuits such as travel and reading despite her financial instability per Isabel’s father’s reckless use of family money.
However, unexpected wealth is dangerous because Isabel has not been educated to understand the social responsibilities and dangers associated with prosperity. Mrs. Touchett and her friend Harriet Stackpole warn their friend of the expectations attached to wealth, but Isabel is too overwhelmed by her new money to understand the duties and risks they speak of. She is so staggered by her uncle’s generous inheritance that it takes her some time to process her changed circumstances; once she finally comes to terms with her new wealth, she is almost crippled by the expectation she places on herself to achieve meaningful enterprises with her monetary gift. Most significantly, Isabel fails to acknowledge her friends’ caution of the risks that come with wealth. She becomes subject to the schemes of cunning social predators: Madame Merle, Mrs. Touchett’s friend, arranges for her lover, Gilbert Osmond, to court Isabel in order to marry her and gain possession of her fortune so that Merle, Osmond, and their illegitimate child Pansy can have access to it. Osmond successfully convinces Isabel to accept his proposal; upon their marriage, she realizes his true cruel personality. Despite Ralph Touchett’s best intentions to free Isabel by gifting her financial independence, his family money has contributed to her downfall. She is miserable in her marriage to Osmond, particularly when compared to her carefree attitudes when she lived in America. Her fortune led her into a tragic union, and she no longer has control over her finances, having relinquished her money to Osmond upon their contract of marriage.
The Portrait of a Lady therefore tells the story of an innocent young woman’s demise, with money at its core. Ralph Touchett believes that wealth will enable Isabel her much-desired freedom to live by her own choices and no one else’s, but Isabel’s ill-informed naivety makes her an easy target of malicious opportunists. Isabel’s earlier contentedness with her life of marginal means compared to her discontent at the decisions she makes concerning her newfound wealth illustrates the difference between money and happiness. Readers cannot, however, infer that Henry James is implying that wealth automatically brings ruin; after all, wealth provides endless comfort for the waning Ralph and his critically ill father. Instead, James demonstrates that unexpected prosperity can be perilous if its beneficiaries have not been thoroughly educated in wealth’s liabilities.
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The Dangers of Wealth Quotes in The Portrait of a Lady
In so far as the indefinable had an influence upon Isabel’s behaviour at this juncture, it was not the conception, even unformulated, of a union with Caspar Goodwood; for however she might have resisted conquest at her English suitor’s large quiet hands she was at least as far removed from the disposition to let the young man from Boston take positive possession of her. […] The idea of a diminished liberty was particularly disagreeable to her at present.
“I’m not in my first youth—I can do whatever I choose—I belong quite to the independent class. I’ve neither father nor mother; I’m poor and of a serious disposition; I’m not pretty. I therefore am not bound to be timid and conventional; indeed I can’t afford such luxuries. Besides, I try to judge things for myself; to judge wrong, I think, is more honourable to not to judge at all. I don’t wish to be a mere sheep in the flock; I wish to choose my own fate and know something of human affairs beyond what other people think it compatible with propriety to tell me.”
“You should live in your own land; whatever it may be you have your natural place there. If we’re not good Americans we’re certainly poor Europeans; we’ve no natural place here. We’re mere parasites, crawling over the surface; we haven’t our feet in the soil. At least one can know it and not have illusions. A woman perhaps can get on; a woman, it seems to me, has no natural place anywhere; wherever she finds herself she has to remain on the surface and, more or less, to crawl.”
“The peril for you is that you live too much in the world of your own dreams. You’re not enough in contact with reality—with the toiling, striving, suffering, I may even say sinning, world that surrounds you. You’re too fastidious; you’ve too many graceful illusions. Your newly-acquired thousands will shut you up more and more to the society of a few selfish and heartless people who will be interested in keeping them up.”
The villa was a long, rather blank-looking structure […] [It’s] antique, solid, weather-worn, yet imposing front had a somewhat incommunicative character. It was the mask, not the face of the house. It had heavy lids, but no eyes; the house in reality looked another way—looked off behind, into splendid openness and the range of the afternoon light. […] The windows of the ground-floor, as you saw them from the piazza, were, in their noble proportions, extremely architectural; but their function seemed less to offer communication with the world than to defy the world to look in.
We know that he was fond of originals, of rarities, of the superior and the exquisite; and now that he had seen Lord Warburton, whom he thought a very fine example of his race and order, he perceived a new attraction of taking to himself a young lady who had qualified herself to figure in his collection of choice objects by declining so noble a hand. […] It would be proper that the woman he might marry should have done something of that sort.
“Is it a marriage your friends won’t like?” he demanded.
“I really haven’t an idea. As I say, I don’t marry for my friends.”
He went on, making no exclamation, no comment, only asking questions, doing it quite without delicacy. “Who and what then is Mr Gilbert Osmond?”
“Who and what? Nobody and nothing but a very good and very honourable man. He’s not in business,” said Isabel. “He’s not rich; he’s not known for anything in particular.”
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. What could he do, what could he say? If the girl was irreclaimable could he pretend to like it? To attempt to reclaim her was permissible only if the attempt should succeed. To try to persuade her of anything sordid or sinister in the man to whose deep art she had succumbed would be decently discreet only in the event of her being persuaded.
“Pray, would you wish me to make a mercenary marriage—what they call a marriage of ambition? I’ve only one ambition—to be free to follow out a good feeling. I had others once, but they’ve passed away. Do you complain of Mr Osmond because he’s not rich? That’s just what I like him for. I’ve fortunately money enough; I’ve never felt so thankful for it as to-day. There have been moments when I should like to go and kneel down by your father’s grave: he did perhaps a better thing than he knew when he put it into my power to marry a poor man—a man who has born his poverty with such dignity, with such indifference. […] Mr. Osmond makes no mistakes! He knows everything, he understands everything, he has the kindest, gentlest, highest spirit.”
The elation of success, which surely now flamed high in Osmond, emitted meanwhile very little smoke for so brilliant a blaze. […] He was immensely pleased with his young lady; Madame Merle had made him a present of incalculable value. […] What could be a happier gift in a companion than a quick, fanciful mind which saved one repetitions and reflected one’s thought on a polished, elegant surface? […] this lady’s intelligence was to be a silver plate, not an earthen one—a plate that he might heap up with ripe fruits, to which it would give a decorative value, so that talk might become for him a sort of served dessert.
The object of Mr. Rosier’s well-regulated affection dwelt in a high house in the very heart of Rome; a dark and massive structure overlooking a sunny piazzetta in the neighbourhood of the Farnese Palace. In a palace, too, little Pansy lived—a palace by Roman measure, but a dungeon to poor Rosier’s apprehensive mind. It seemed to him of evil omen that the young lady he wished to marry, and whose fastidious father he doubted of his ability to conciliate, should be immured in a kind of domestic fortress […] he could see that the proportions of the windows and even the details of the cornice had quite the grand air.
He took his course to the adjoining room and met Mrs. Osmond coming out of the deep doorway. She was dressed in black velvet; she looked high and splendid, as he had said, and yet oh so radiantly gentle! […] She had lost something of that quick eagerness to which her husband had privately taken exception—she had more the air of being able to wait. Now, at all events, framed in the gilded doorway, she struck our young man as the picture of a gracious lady.
“If she should marry Lord Warburton I should be very glad,” Isabel went on frankly. “He’s an excellent man. You say, however, that she only to sit perfectly still. Perhaps she won’t sit perfectly still. If she loses Mr. Rosier she may jump up!”
Osmond appeared to give no heed to this; he sat gazing at the fire. “Pansy would like to be a great lady,” he remarked in a moment with a certain tenderness of tone. “She wishes above all to please,” he added.
The real offence, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his—attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park. He would take the soil gently and water the flowers; he would weed the best and gather an occasional nosegay. It would be a pretty piece of property for a proprietor already far-reaching.
“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. Many of them are gentlewomen born; several of them are noble. She will have her books and her drawing, she will have her piano. I’ve made the most liberal arrangements.”
Isabel saw it all as distinctly as if it had been reflected in a large clear glass. It might have been a great moment for her, for it might have been a moment of triumph. That Madame Merle has lost her pluck and saw before her the phantom of exposure—this in itself was a revenge, this in itself was almost the promise of a brighter day.
“Why shouldn’t we be happy—when it’s here before us, when it’s so easy? I’m yours for ever—for ever and ever. Here I stand; I’m as firm as a rock. What have you to care about? You’ve no children; that perhaps would be an obstacle. As it is you’ve nothing to consider. You must save what you can of your life; you mustn’t lose it all simply because you’ve lost a part. It would be an insult to you to assume that you care for the look of the thing, for what people will say, for the bottomless idiocy of the world. We’ve nothing to do with all that; we’re quite out of it; we look at things as they are. You took the great step in coming away; the next is nothing; it’s the natural one.”