The Portrait of a Lady: Chapter 20 - Summary & Analysis

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Chapter XX


      Isabel was stunned at the acquisition of the income from 70,000 pounds. Madame Merle was almost overtaken by this disclosure but Mrs. Touchett insisted that Isabel had nothing to do with gaining the inheritance.

      Mrs, Touchett and Isabel soon left for the continent. Both stayed in a hotel in Paris, and also found Henrietta there. In Paris, Isabel was introduced by Mrs. Touchett to a group of expatriate Americans living off Champs Elysium. Generally they were boring people with boring interests, she also meets Rosier (“Ned”) who seems capable of unfolding the city to her and her friends. He lisps his likes and dislikes to Isabel and often receives moral strictures from Henrietta.

      As Isabel embarks on her “free exploration” of life, Henrietta is outspoken in declaring that she is drifting rather to “some great mistake”. Henrietta is concerned lest the new fortune increases Isabel’s tendency to “escape disagreeable duties by taking romantic views”. Isabel looks troubled and frightened but she dismisses the whole thing with a retort. Henrietta goes about Paris with the obliging Mr. Bantling. Isabel feels that these two, though of opposite cultures, have “entrapped” each other and often makes fun of Mr. Bantling’s obliging qualities. Henrietta is soon to go to Italy with Mr. Bantling.

Critical Analysis

      In this chapter, we are confronted with a new, serious and critical Isabel who is critical of her trifling expatriate Americans in Paris. The legacy has enkindled Madame Mede’s interest in Isabel. Honest Henrietta warns Isabel of the dangers of having her romantic “ideas” allied to so large a legacy. She tells her that her marriage refusals are merely “graceful illusions”; There is something more in life than merely being pleased—with others or with one’s self.

      The picture of a Europeanized American living in Paris which James paints is justly famous for its pointed humor (c.f. Ned Rosier). The overwhelming effect of James’s description of the ‘expatriates’ is one of provinciality, boredom, and idleness.

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