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MonkeyNotes-Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
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Chapter 20

A few weeks after the death of Mr. Touchett, Madame Merle visits Winchester Square and is surprised to find it is already being dismantled to be sold. Mrs. Touchett says she is pleased that her husband left her in such good financial shape and the narrator shows the Madame Merle is thinking unflattering things about Mrs. Touchett’s virtues as a wife and as a person. When Mrs. Touchett tells her that Isabel inherited a fortune, Madame Merle exclaims, "the clever creature." Mrs. Touchett calls her on this, saying Isabel had no intention of gaining anything in her friendship with Mr. Touchett. Madame Merle asks to see Isabel and finds her solemn but very glad to see her.

Isabel has been feeling very serious about her new wealth. She knows it is power she has gained and she thinks of it with "tender ferocity." She decides that "to be rich was a virtue" because it allowed her to do things. She accompanies her aunt to Paris and finds her aunt’s friends there to be very inane and empty-headed. Mrs. Luce spends all her time in her Baltimore-like house as if she weren’t in Paris at all. Mr. Luce carries on a rigid schedule of doing nothing and has as his greatest accomplishment the ability to order dinner at a restaurant. He is a staunch conservative who longs for the days of the French monarchy to return, an opinion Mrs. Touchett agrees with. She meets Ned Rosier, also an expatriate, but one who has lived in Paris all his life. She had met him as a child. He spends all his time shopping and tries to answer Isabel’s impertinent questions about the value of his existence.

Henrietta Stackpole is also in Paris at this time. She has traveled very intimately with Mr. Bantling and finds him a perfect companion. Isabel finds the couple an odd pair. Henrietta Stackpole lectures Ned Rosier on the duties of being an American citizen. She tells Isabel she would have advised Mr. Touchett against giving her this fortune. She thinks it will enable Isabel to continue to live in the world of her dreams instead of looking squarely at reality. She tells Isabel that her main illusion is that she can live by pleasing herself and others. Henrietta states that, on the contrary, one must often make choices that will not please others or even oneself.


Notes

Chapter 20 brings in Madame Merle only briefly, but quite importantly. She comes in to see the dismantling of the Touchett holdings, the house on Winchester Square in particular. In the narrator’s inside view of her thoughts, the reader finds out that she is envious. When she finds out that her new friend Isabel inherited a fortune, her first impulse is to think Isabel manipulated Mr. Touchett into giving her this large behest. She is clearly not the ideal figure Isabel has taken her for. In letting the reader see this while keeping Isabel uninformed of it, James sets up a tension in the novel which will continue to build up suspense in the plot.

Chapter 20 introduces the Parisian scene and it is clearly not one which Henry James finds as appealing as the British country house life. All of its representatives--the ex-patriot Americans-- come in for subtle and witty critique. Mrs. Luce, who recreates Baltimore in Paris, her husband, Mr. Luce, whose great achievement is his ability to order dinner in a Parisian restaurant, and Ned Rosier, who can’t imagine any occupation other than shopping for fine articles.

James also takes time in this chapter to keep the reader informed of Henrietta Stackpole’s progress through Europe. In this way, he can keep the most straightforward of Isabel’s critics in view and the narrator doesn’t have to do this kind of moralizing. Henrietta’s insights are sharp. She finds that Isabel is an idealist and thinks she can live a life in which she pleases herself and others and never has to do anything that goes against this pleasantness. This is an important insight for setting up Isabel’s later choices.

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