Study Guide

The Portrait of a Lady Contrasting Regions

By Henry James

Contrasting Regions

American girls were used to a great deal of deference, and it had been intimated that this one had a high spirit. (1.87)

The idea of the young American girl is described with some hilarity throughout the first chapter of the book – the gentlemen, Lord Warburton, Mr. Touchett, and Ralph, have some very peculiar ideas about what this creature entails.

She was not fond of the English style of life, and had three or four reasons for it to which she currently alluded; they bore upon minor points of that ancient order, but for Mrs. Touchett they amply justified non-residence. She detested bread-sauce, which, as she said, looked like a poultice and tasted like soap; she objected to the consumption of beer by her maid-servants; and she affirmed that the British laundress (Mrs. Touchett was very particular about the appearance of her linen) was not a mistress of her art. At fixed intervals she paid a visit to her own country; but this last had been longer than any of its predecessors. (3.1)

Mrs. Touchett is, as you might have noticed, really a remarkably judgmental creature. Her dismissal of England as a nation is based on peculiarities like condiments and laundry.

But, as he said to himself, he had no intention of disamericanising, nor had he a desire to teach his only son any such subtle art. It had been for himself so very soluble a problem to live in England assimilated yet unconverted that it seemed to him equally simple his lawful heir should after his death carry on the grey old bank in the white American light. (5.2)

Mr. Touchett, who managed to maintain his American identity despite years in England, hopes that Ralph can do the same – but how can he possibly?

Ralph spent several terms at an American school and took a degree at an American university, after which, as he struck his father on his return as even redundantly native, he was placed for some three years in residence at Oxford. Oxford swallowed up Harvard, and Ralph became at last English enough. His outward conformity to the manners that surrounded him was none the less the mask of a mind that greatly enjoyed its independence, on which nothing long imposed itself, and which, naturally inclined to adventure and irony, indulged in a boundless liberty of appreciation. (5.2)

Ralph is an odd creature; he was raised to be both English and American, and, as a result, is really neither.

Isabel amused him more than she suspected – the effect she produced upon people was often different from what she supposed – and he frequently gave himself the pleasure of making her chatter. It was by this term that he qualified her conversation, which had much of the "point" observable in that of the young ladies of her country, to whom the ear of the world is more directly presented than to their sisters in other lands. Like the mass of American girls Isabel had been encouraged to express herself; her remarks had been attended to; she had been expected to have emotions and opinions. (6.3)

Again, the question of the American young lady arises. One imagines, from Mr. Touchett’s opinions, that they are quite different – and more independent on the whole – than the young women of Europe.

"Gracious," Isabel exclaimed; "how many classes have they? About fifty, I suppose."

"Well, I don't know that I ever counted them. I never took much notice of the classes. That's the advantage of being an American here; you don't belong to any class." (6.4)

Finally, the question of the role of the American expatriate arises. Mr. Touchett is pleased that they have no real social role or class, while other characters, we imagine, are less pleased with this.

"… 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."
Isabel blushed a little as she concluded this speech, and the blush, together with the momentary ardour she had thrown into it, was so becoming to her that Ralph stood smiling at her for a moment after she had ceased speaking. "I’m not sure the Pacific’s so green as that," he said; "but you’re a young woman of imagination. Henrietta, however, does smell of the Future – it almost knocks one down!" (10.22-23)

Isabel, despite all of her interest in Europe, is American at her core – and she loves that Henrietta reminds her of their country. To Ralph, whose American-ness has faded almost beyond recognition, the smell of the country is also the smell of the future – and to his old world sensibilities, it’s daunting.

"That doesn't make him my companion. Besides, he's an Englishman."

"And pray isn't an Englishman a human being?" Isabel asked.

"Oh, those people? They're not of my humanity, and I don't care what becomes of them." (16.17)

Wow, Caspar – that’s way harsh. The blunt young man from Boston has no interest in sympathizing with Lord Warburton, since, as he sees it, Englishmen and Americans have nothing in common.

"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." (19.12)

Interestingly, even Madame Merle, the inveterate European-American, believes that Americans have no place in the old world; they’re unrooted, unnatural, and unwelcome there. Perhaps her success in Europe stems from the fact that she recognizes all of this.

"Oh well," said Henrietta, "I’ve something to find out too!" And Isabel saw that she had not renounced an allegiance, but planned an attack. She was at last about to grapple in earnest with England. (53.17)

Although Henrietta plans to marry an Englishman, Mr. Bantling, she certainly doesn’t intend to give up her American identity – Isabel realizes that her friend is characteristically ready to take on England, rather than give in to it.