Ralph Touchett: Character Analysis - The Portrait of a Lady

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      Another major character in the novel is the recurring Jamesian figure—Ralph Touchett. Some critics hold the view that Henry James has created a number of characters who are like Ralph Touchett—“a debarred spectator who enjoys everything in imagination and nothing in action.”

Ralph’s personality as described by James

      Ralph’s personality is described by James in the following words: “Tall: lean, loosely and feebly put together, he had an ugly, sickly, witty, charming face, furnished, but by no means decorated, with a straggling moustache and whisker. He looked clever and ill—a combination by no means felicitous; and he wore a brown velvet jacket. He carried his hands in his pockets, and there was something in the way he did it that showed the habit was inveterate. His gait had a shambling, wandering quality; he was not very firm on his legs.” Mr. Daniel Touchett thinks of him as “a very good nurse or a sick-nurse. I call him my sick-nurse because he’s sick himself.” Lord Warburton accuses Ralph of being a cynic and says: “He,s a wretched fellow to talk to—a regular cynic. He does not seem to believe in anything.” But Ralph’s father defends him and says: “It is because his health is so poor. It affects his mind and colors his way of looking at things, he seems to feel as if he had never had a chance. But it is almost entirely theoretical, you know, it doesn’t seem to affect his spirit. I’ve hardly seen him when he wasn’t cheerful about he is at present. He often cheers me up.”

      Ralph too is an expatriate American whose father had no intentions of dis-Americanizing him. He has had his education at Oxford and Harvard. Unfortunately the English air has left Ralph with a lung ailment, but it has also afforded him the excuse for considerable travel abroad. Throughout the novel he keeps wandering from place to place on the advice of doctors. Ultimately, he returns to Gardencourt and dies there.

Ralph Touchett is “the central intelligence”

      Henry James consistently uses a chosen centre of attraction in order to bring the novel into sharp focus. Essentially this is a means of “locating” his story so that the way in which the story is told becomes a part of the story itself.

      The point-of-view character, or the ‘‘central intelligence”, as James called this always presents a creative sense and the reader feels a particular consciousness to be shaping the events of the story. Isabel Archer is “the central consciousness” of the novel and Ralph Touchett is “the central intelligence” of the novel. In the novel his role is that of an observer-cum-commentator. His judgments and opinions are highly valuable. Elizabeth Drew thinks of Ralph Touchett as representing the yardstick of civilized mature emotion and understanding against which all the other characters are measured. He is the Mr. Knightley or the Marlow or Mr. Stein whose consciousness is more delicately aware than anybody else of the whole pattern of values and relationships of the group.

He is an aesthete : an Intellectual and a Philosopher

      Ralph Touchett is an ideal observer of men and manners, but he has the freedom of enjoying without being involved. He is an aesthete and relishes the beautiful. He is contented with sitting back and watching Isabel since he feels that he has no right of manipulating or dominating Isabel.

      Ralph Touchett is a graduate from Oxford and has spent three years in residence of Oxford. His bright intelligence and wide, interests distinguished him in the University. His extraordinary accomplishments arouse others’ pity when they hear that he had to shut out from a career on account of his ill-health. His travels have supplemented and added a depth to the knowledge which he had received through his formal education.

      Ralph also has a philosophic bent of mind. He is more of an observer than a man of action. He is a silent observer at the game of life. His attitude to the world deserves attention. He reveals to Isabel his wry social deceptions:

      “I keep a band of music in my ante-room. It has orders to play without stopping; it renders me two excellent services. It keeps the sounds of the world from reaching the private apartments, and it makes the world think that dancing is going on within.”

Ralph offers a glaring contrast to Osmond

      Osmond appears to be an aesthete but in reality is a “sterile dilettante”. On the other hand, Ralph has a soft aesthetic sense. He does not scorn aesthetics, as do Henrietta and Caspar Goodwood. His love for aesthetics is not a blind worship like that of Osmond. Ralph observes the distinction between art and nature. To him, Isabel is like a work of art, a Titian, a Greek bas-relief, a beautiful edifice but is even finer, for she is a part of nature. Conducting Isabel in her visit through the art gallery at Gardencourt, he thought that Isabel was better worth looking at than most works of art.

      We can infer that where Osmond is a false aesthete, Ralph is a true one. Osmond wants and even tries his level best to turn Isabel into a work of art (we see her at his home ‘framed in the gilded doorway’ already adjusting to her status as portrait). On the other hand, Ralph fully appreciates Isabel’s vitality and vivaciousness. Ralph’s detachment from the world is not a pretence like that of Osmond, whose life is a worldly one at the bottom. Isabel marries Osmond, thinking she has chosen the best mate. But Isabel was foolishly mistaken. She comes to recognize Ralph as more intelligent more just. It is the love of dying Ralph which is of a great comfort to Isabel; Ralph tells her, on his death-bed that she has been not only loved but adored. Ralph’s affection for Isabel has become adoration in the fullest sense in his final declaration. Ralph loved Isabel, adored her without hope.

      Osmond succeeds in effacing Isabel’s identity in some way. Osmond, meddling with other persons’s lives is based on his egotistical way of making a total ‘use’ of the other person. Ralph’s meddling, on the other hand is on account of his desire to help people to live out the possibilities. It is for this that he wants his father to give Isabel a large sum of money. Ralph’s intentions were all for the good of letting Isabel gain inheritance. Though it can be argued that it was only the inheritance which began Isabel’s troubles.

      In their married life, Osmond and Isabel are just the two individuals living under the same roof. We find that they are barely on speaking terms. They have succumbed to the temptation of appearances. Ralph, on the other hand, wants to help Isabel in every possible way. At San Remo, Ralph warns her: “Don’t try so much to form your character—it’s like trying to pull open a tight, tender young rose.” He sets aside all her fears and questionings, advising her to take things easily without pricking her conscience. He also warns her of Osmond and points out: “You seem to me to be soaring far up in the blue—to be sailing in the bright light, over the heads of men. Suddenly someone tosses up a faded rose—a missile that should never have reached you—and straight you drop to the ground. It hurts me as if I had fallen myself.” It is in the light of these very remarks that critics tend to regard Ralph as Isabel’s other-self.

Ralph too is not a perfect human being

      Henry James has endowed Ralph with noble qualities of head and heart but he too is not a perfect human being. He too has his shortcomings. He is a flawed character. The gross presumptuousness with which Ralph imagines he can engineer destiny, is made keenly apparent when he concludes the interview with the statement : “I shall get just the good I said a few moments ago I wished, to put into Isabel’s reach—that of having met the requirements of her imagination.”


      Ralph dies a premature death and his death is one of the most touching events, in the novel. The death of one “who has the illumination of wisdom and none of its pedantry ” fills every reader’s eyes with tears.

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