Study Guide

The Portrait of a Lady Wealth

By Henry James


"Isabel’s poor then. My mother tells me that she has but a few hundred dollars a year. I should like to make her rich."

"What do you mean by rich?"

"I call people rich when they're able to meet the requirements of their imagination. Isabel has a great deal of imagination." (18.26)

Here, Ralph attempts to convince his father to leave Isabel a fortune large enough to allow her to do whatever she dreams of with it. And, Isabel, as we all know, has big dreams.

"Her marrying – some one or other? It's just to do away with anything of that sort that I make my suggestion. If she has an easy income she'll never have to marry for a support. That's what I want cannily to prevent. She wishes to be free, and your bequest will make her free." (18.26)

Ralph assumes that granting Isabel financial independence will also grant her independence from social norms and limitations – like marriage.

Mr. Touchett lay a long time still. Ralph supposed he had given up the attempt to follow. But at last, quite lucidly, he began again. "Tell me this first. Doesn't it occur to you that a young lady with sixty thousand pounds may fall a victim to the fortune-hunters?"

"She'll hardly fall a victim to more than one."

"Well, one's too many."

"Decidedly. That's a risk, and it has entered into my calculation. I think it's appreciable, but I think it's small, and I'm prepared to take it." (18.32)

Ralph’s belief in his cousin’s potential is so great that he’s willing to invest in her – literally. His conviction that she won’t be victimized by gold-diggers is so great that he convinces his father that it’s a risk worth taking.

This failure to rise to immediate joy was indeed but brief; the girl presently made up her mind that to be rich was a virtue because it was to be able to do, and that to do could only be sweet. It was the graceful contrary of the stupid side of weakness – especially the feminine variety. To be weak was, for a delicate young person, rather graceful, but, after all, as Isabel said to herself, there was a larger grace than that. (20.12)

Wealth boggles Isabel’s mind. At first, she’s too upset about her uncle’s death and confused by the bequest to really be able to cope with it; after a while, though, she decides to be the best possible rich person she can be, and to use the money to be strong and active.

"Now that you're a young woman of fortune you must know how to play the part – I mean to play it well," she said to Isabel once for all; and she added that the girl's first duty was to have everything handsome. "You don't know how to take care of your things, but you must learn," she went on; this was Isabel's second duty. Isabel submitted, but for the present her imagination was not kindled; she longed for opportunities, but these were not the opportunities she meant. (20.12)

Mrs. Touchett, who’s more familiar with the world than her young niece, knows that Isabel’s fortune places certain new social expectations upon her.

"If Mr. Touchett had consulted me about leaving you the money," she frankly asserted, "I'd have said to him 'Never!' "

"I see," Isabel had answered. "You think it will prove a curse in disguise. Perhaps it will."

"Leave it to some one you care less for – that's what I should have said."

"To yourself for instance?" Isabel suggested jocosely. And then, "Do you really believe it will ruin me?" she asked in quite another tone.

"I hope it won't ruin you; but it will certainly confirm your dangerous tendencies." (20.19)

Henrietta is appalled by Mr. Touchett’s bequest, and is worried about what it will do to her friend’s character. The "dangerous tendencies" are the same issues we see in Isabel throughout the novel – her removal from the real world, and her belief in her own ways and views of life.

"I try to care more about the world than about myself – but I always come back to myself. It's because I'm afraid." She stopped; her voice had trembled a little. "Yes, I'm afraid; I can't tell you. A large fortune means freedom, and I'm afraid of that. It's such a fine thing, and one should make such a good use of it. If one shouldn't one would be ashamed. And one must keep thinking; it's a constant effort. I'm not sure it's not a greater happiness to be powerless." (21.9)

Isabel admits that she’s afraid of the specific kind of freedom that wealth brings. This is a different kind of liberty than that which she described to Caspar Goodwood (the independence of her former identity as a poor nobody).

"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 borne his poverty with such dignity, with such indifference." (34.17)

Isabel naïvely and idealistically claims that Osmond’s relative poverty is a pro, rather than a con – she seems to think that, in marrying a poorer man, she is doing some good in the world. Of course, it doesn’t occur to her that he is marrying her because she is rich.

But for her money, as she saw to-day, she would never have done it. And then her mind wandered off to poor Mr. Touchett, sleeping under English turf, the beneficent author of infinite woe! For this was the fantastic fact. At bottom her money had been a burden, had been on her mind, which was filled with the desire to transfer the weight of it to some other conscience, to some more prepared receptacle. What would lighten her own conscience more effectually than to make it over to the man with the best taste in the world? Unless she should have given it to a hospital there would have been nothing better she could do with it; and there was no charitable institution in which she had been as much interested as in Gilbert Osmond. (42.3)

After years of miserable marriage, Isabel realizes that she has deceived herself just as much as Osmond deceived her. While she created high-flown ideas about Osmond’s worthiness and superiority, their marriage was really just about her money, at its core. Without meaning to do so, Mr. Touchett (and, unbeknownst to Isabel) enabled her dire situation.