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MonkeyNotes-Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
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Ralph Touchett

He is a character who seems more than any other to stand in for Henry James, even to the point of working out a compensation fantasy for James of a father and son camaraderie that he might have wished he had with his own father. Ralph Touchett is one of the most positive characters in the novel. His function in the novel is more than that of a satellite character used to bring out a particular side of Isabel Archer. He is also here to provide a center of moral authority in the novel. All the characters are measured by Ralph Touchett. He recognizes the moral quality of all of them with an unerring eye. Perhaps his gift of perception comes from his detachment. Since he has nothing to win or lose, being ready at every point of his life to die, he is a disinterested judge of character.

However, that might be giving Ralph a bit too much. He does seem to be taken with Isabel Archer from the moment he sees her. So he loses his disinterested stance toward life and those in it from that point onwards. When he sees her on his father’s lawn, he immediately gives her his dog and from then on he makes Isabel Archer the reason for continuing to live. Ralph provides the catalyst for the action of the novel when he arranges to give half his own inheritance to Isabel so as to make her independently wealthy. He tells his father that if she doesn’t have money, perhaps she will be forced to marry. What he doesn’t realize is that Isabel doesn’t have such practical notions of marriage and money. She has already rejected a marriage proposal from an English lord who happens to be a very nice man as well. If it weren’t for Ralph’s generosity with Isabel, she would never have married Gilbert Osmond and cut short her exploration of what it means for a woman to live the free life. If she hadn’t married Gilbert Osmond, Ralph wouldn’t have been deprived of her company and her confidences for the years of her marriage. When Ralph first knows Isabel, he decides rather quickly for himself that he isn’t in love with Isabel, just interested in her. The reader might look at this skeptically.

The reason for Ralph’s detachment from participating in life is, of course, his pulmonary disease, that comes to him in his early manhood and keeps him out of active participation in life from then on. He began working for his father’s bank and seems to have wanted to do what his father wished for him in that capacity. Before that, he went to all the best schools, first in the States and then in England. He seems to have been ruled in these early years by his father’s idea of what he should be--English or American, a businessman or an artist/art connoisseur. He doesn’t seem to have had any inclinations of his own in either of these directions. People around him assume that he would never have made much of a name for himself in the banking business, but one can never know since this judgment would have been based on Ralph’s later life attitude of amused detachment gained from a resigned awareness that he was too sick to live life fully.


The Ralph we can know and analyze is the Ralph of amused detachment rather than the Ralph he would have been before he was struck with his disease. When he is first introduced, it is in light contrast to his lifelong friend, Lord Warburton. Lord Warburton is said to be bored with life and Ralph is said to be intensely interested in it. More than just this interest in life is brought out in that first scene of the novel on the grounds of Gardencourt. It is also his abiding love for his father and his appreciation of his father’s uniqueness as an individual. Later, when his mother is discussed, he also shows an ability to recognize her merits and to appreciate just those elements of her character that other people find disturbing. Ralph’s ability to recognize goodness in people is, then, established before he meets Isabel Archer. When he shows his clear appreciation of her from the beginning, the reader is signaled that here is another good character. On the other side, he also recognizes immediately that Madame Merle is not a good person, though he tries to be urbane enough not to say it openly or directly. He sees the same in Gilbert Osmond. Only when he is speaking to his mother will he let loose his severe criticism of Gilbert Osmond. His commitment to detachment, which arises not only from his illness but from his good manners, keeps him from warning Isabel away from Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond. He has to sit by and watch as Isabel is drawn into their scheme at the loss of her life of liberty.

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