Portrait o a Lady: Chapters 16-18
Summary – Chapters Sixteen, Seventeen and Eighteen
Isabel has no hidden motive for wanting to go home alone, but welcomes the interval of solitude. At her hotel, however, she receives a visiting card from Caspar Goodwood and she tells the waiter to let him come up.
When he arrives in her rooms, she asks how he knew of her whereabouts and he informs her that Miss Stackpole let him know. Isabel says it was not kind of her to do this and does not like such surprises. She asks him why he persists with her and he answers that it is because he does not want to lose her. She tells him he has no right to talk of losing that which is not his. He says he is ‘infernally’ in love with her and she asks him to leave her alone for two years. She adds that she does not wish to marry and almost certainly never shall. She also says that she has turned down an English nobleman and he should make the most of that.
She then tells him she likes her personal independence and asks him not think her unkind when she is travelling Europe. If she means to shock him, she fails as he tells her that he, more than anyone, has no wish to curtail her liberty; he wants to marry her to make her independent. She calls this ‘beautiful sophism’ and says she wants to choose her fate and to know something of human affairs beyond what people tell her. He says he will come back in two years and she will get sick of her independence. She answers that this is probable and when he leaves she goes to her bedroom and on impulse she drops to her knees and hides her face in her arms.
In Chapter Seventeen, it is explained that she is not praying but is trembling all over. She is glad Goodwood has left and feels that she has paid a debt that has been ‘too long on her mind’. She also might be feeling the enjoyment in the exercise of her power. She tastes the delight if not of battle then ‘at least of victory’. She has done ‘what was truest to her plan’.
When Henrietta returns, Isabel is annoyed with her and says she cannot trust her and lets her know that Mr. Goodwood is leaving for the United States immediately. Henrietta asks if she knows where she is ‘drifting’ and Isabel says she does not have the faintest idea. She asks Henrietta the same question the next day and is told she is going to be ‘the Queen of American Journalism’.
Shortly after Henrietta leaves to do some shopping, Ralph appears and says his mother has sent a telegram informing him that his father is worse and she wants him to return home. Isabel says she would like to come too to see her uncle and he notes that she appreciates his father ‘which all the world hasn’t done’. He returns later to take her to the station and as she packs he talks to Henrietta who informs him of Caspar Goodwood’s visit. He suspects Isabel of duplicity (in wanting to go home alone) and then thinks that this is not his concern. He is relieved, though, when Henrietta tells him this was her plot as this means Isabel has not lied to him.
Chapter Eighteen begins at Gardencourt and Isabel hears someone playing a piano. It is a stranger, a woman, and Isabel thinks she is French, and after she finishes she and Isabel talk. The newcomer explains she is a compatriot and this does not disappoint Isabel as she is an American ‘on such interesting terms’. She is a friend of Mrs. Touchett in Florence and is called Madame Merle. She looks to be 40 years old and Isabel is impressed by her: ‘She was in a word a woman of strong impulses kept in admirable order. This commended itself to Isabel as an ideal combination.’ Isabel asks Ralph about her later and he reveals he once loved her, which was when her husband was still alive.
The narrative shifts to Ralph’s concern for his father who is getting weaker and is unconscious for much of the time. He revives a little and tells Ralph to get a new interest. He wants him to marry and asks what he thinks of his cousin. Ralph says he dare not love her because of his illness, but would if things were different. He tells his father he would like to do something for her, though, ‘to put a little wind in her sails’ and to let her do some of the things she wants to do. His father says he has thought of this and has left her a legacy of 5,000 dollars. Ralph is pleased but would like to do more – he wants to make her rich. He asks his father to divide his inheritance in two and then she will never have to marry for money either. His father points out that she might fall victim to fortune hunters (as she will receive 60,000 dollars) and Ralph says he thinks this is a small risk.
Analysis – Chapters Sixteen, Seventeen and Eighteen
When Isabel declines Caspar Goodwood, she is seen in an apparent position of prayer at the end of Chapter Sixteen. It is explained in the following chapter, however, that she is relieved rather than sad and it is suggested that she has enjoyed having a sense of power in both controlling her own destiny and in rebuking him.
Her later meeting with Madame Merle at Gardencourt proves to be an auspicious one as the novel unfolds. Even at this first encounter, she is evidently impressed by this self-contained older woman and comes to be influenced by her machinations in the future. The third significant event in these chapters occurs when Ralph asks his father to divide his inheritance with Isabel in order to give her independence and to allow her to avoid marrying for money. It is at this point that the reader realizes the depth of Ralph’s feelings for Isabel.
With good intentions, Ralph and his father influence Isabel’s fate as they attempt to give her what she needs for the lifestyle of an independent woman in a patriarchal society.