Summary – Chapters Five and Six
Chapter Five returns to the present as Ralph knocks eagerly on his mother’s door. He takes after his father, who is the more ‘motherly’, whereas his mother is paternal, even ‘gubernatorial’. She is, nevertheless, fond of her only child and insists that he spends three months in the year with her.
He was extremely young when his father, Daniel Touchett (a native of Vermont), came to England as a subordinate partner in a banking house. He gained control 10 years later and Ralph was sent to school in the United States and earned a degree at Harvard. On his return, he went to Oxford for three years and he ‘became at last English enough’. After travelling, he worked for his father in the bank, but became ill after 18 months there (with consumption). He now lives for the moment and knows his ‘hour is in sight’.
He asks his mother what she plans to do with Isabel and she says she wants his father to invite her to stay here at Gardencourt and then go to Paris and Florence with her.
After dinner, Ralph and Isabel talk and she asks him to show her the pictures in their gallery despite his suggestion they should wait until tomorrow when the light is better. He is struck by her natural taste and her passion for knowledge as they look at them.
She then asks if there is a ghost in the house as this is a romantic building. He argues that it is prosaic rather than romantic. When she asks if she will be able to see the ghost, he says she will not as she has not suffered enough and hopes she never will.
Chapter Six describes how Isabel is ‘very liable to the sin of self-esteem’ and is in the habit of thinking she is right. She also sees herself as fortunate in being independent and thinks she ought to make use of this. Her friend, Henrietta Stackpole, offers her a high example of ‘useful activity’ as she works as a journalist. Her letters to the Interviewer are universally quoted and this work enables her to pay the school bills for three of the children of a widowed and infirm sister. She is proof to Isabel that ‘a woman might suffice to herself and be happy’.
It often seems to Isabel that she thinks too much about herself and is always planning out her own development. England is a revelation, though, and she is as diverted here as a child is at a pantomime. She forms a friendship with her uncle, questions him immensely about England, and compares this to what is written in books. She asks if English people are nice to girls, because they are not in novels and he says he does not suppose they are accurate. He cites the time a novelist stayed at his home and was not accurate then when she drew on him for a character.
They then discuss the class system and he claims there is an advantage of being an American in England as ‘you don’t belong to any class’. He says there are only two for him: the ones he trusts and the ones he does not, and she belongs to the first group. She thanks him, but does not like to show she is pleased by compliments. She says the English are very conventional and he agrees that they like to have things fixed ‘beforehand’; she says she likes more unexpectedness.
Analysis – Chapters Five and Six
Isabel’s thirst for knowledge is highlighted when she asks her uncle several questions about England and wants to know how this compares to what she has been told in books. It was specified in Chapter Three that she does not want to be thought ‘bookish’ and it becomes apparent that she wants to discover the world through living rather than reading.
The discussion they have about the English class system is critical from an American perspective. The American view is vaunted as more democratic by patriots such as Henrietta Stackpole. Through her opinion (through the course of the novel) and instances such as these when Mr Touchett claims the advantage of being American is not limited by this Old World regime in England, a critique of the Old in comparison to the New World becomes evident. The conventions of English life are also highlighted and criticized when Isabel argues that she likes more ‘unexpectedness’ than is available in English thinking.
It is in this chapter that Isabel shows her self-inflated ego as well as her innocence about life. These traits will turn out to be her downfall.
The Portrait of a Lady: Chapters 5-6
Summary – Chapters Five and Six