The Portrait of a Lady
by Henry James
Analysis: Plot Analysis
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.
Isabel arrives at Gardencourt, fresh off the boat from America (Chapter One)
Isabel’s first few months in England set us up for her European adventures beyond the Channel; we get to know more about her past and her hopes for the future, as well as her perspective towards Europe on the whole. Our curiosity about what Isabel will actually do once she’s loosed upon the world builds and builds, as does Ralph’s.
Mr. Touchett, at Ralph’s insistence, leaves Isabel a fortune of 70,000 pounds (Chapter Eighteen)
Oh, the money. This is a problematic moment; Ralph is certain he’s doing the right thing, and has almost boundless confidence in his cousin’s abilities and potential. Others are less enthusiastic; Mr. Touchett worries that she’ll be besieged by gold diggers, while Henrietta fears that becoming rich will remove Isabel from the real world and allow her to live in the artificial, illusive microcosm of the very, very wealthy. Madame Merle, on the other hand, sees the opportunity for personal gain in Isabel’s windfall, and decides to introduce Isabel to Osmond.
Madame Merle manufactures Isabel and Osmond’s marriage (Chapters Twenty-Two – Thirty Two)
Madame Merle skillfully uses everything she knows about Isabel to engineer the relationship between Osmond and the girl. The complaints of her friends and family only egg Isabel on, and, once she decides to marry Osmond, she won’t listen to anybody’s warnings about him. Isabel believes that she acts completely independently, but fails to see Madame Merle’s hand in all of this.
Isabel’s misery is revealed, and she begins to suspect Madame Merle and Osmond of something terrible (Chapter Forty-Two)
In the intensely psychological, deeply personal musings of Chapter Forty-Two, we see exactly what Isabel is thinking; she is horrified by what has happened to her, and now begins to wonder who is really to blame for the misery in her life. While she blames herself for some aspects of it, she is suspicious of the oddly intimate relationship of Madame Merle and Osmond – what can the other woman really have to do with everything?
Suspense Osmond forbids Isabel to go to Ralph at Gardencourt; Countess Gemini intervenes and reveals the truth about Madame Merle, Osmond, and Pansy (Chapter Fifty-One)
Osmond’s dictatorial rule over Isabel rears its ugly head, and, in her weakened state, Isabel is vulnerable to Countess Gemini’s own machinations. The latter reveals the true nature of Osmond and Madame Merle’s relationship, and Isabel realizes that she’s just a rung in their social ladder – they simply wanted to ensure a better future for Pansy. Isabel faces a choice: does she stay in her chosen life, newly revealed as a total lie, or does she return to Gardencourt to be with those who really love her?
Ralph’s death scene (Chapter Fifty-Four)
Isabel finally comes clean with Ralph about her utter misery, and the two cousins reconcile completely. Isabel realizes that love is still out there – she understands the full extend of Ralph’s love for her, and hers for him (she loves him like a brother), and acknowledges the fact that life is all about love. Something changes here in Isabel; she reasserts herself and her beliefs, and, even though Ralph’s death is tragic, they both attain a certain kind of happiness in knowing that they are together, at least for now. Isabel, removed from the dark influence of Osmond’s mind, seems to have regained some of her old clarity and strength.
Caspar Goodwood makes a final appeal to Isabel, but she returns to Rome (Chapter Fifty-Five)
In one of the most infuriating/satisfying conclusions of all time, Caspar Goodwood makes a passionate appeal to Isabel, saying that Ralph entrusted him with her happiness. They share an unforgettable kiss, but Isabel runs away from him as soon as it’s over. Her decision to return to Rome comes as a shock both to him and to us – we don’t see what her mental process is (we can imagine that Henrietta must have put up some kind of fight), but, in the end, it’s in keeping with her sense of personal responsibility and duty.