In my brief commentary on Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady I mentioned at the end of the piece that there were characters in the novel I’d like to explore in more detail since I was only really able to give attention to Isabel Archer, since it is such a big book, with an immense array of complex and interesting characters. One character I would like to explore in more detail is Isabel’s cousin, Ralph Touchett, particularly in the way in which he tries to influence the development of Miss Archer.
Throughout the novel ralph Touchett is considered an invalid because he is dying from a disease of the liver. But in spite of this, he has a keen eye for seeing through people and understanding their desires and is innately curious. Consequently, he is fascinated by the singular Isabel Archer, with her rebelliousness and her love of freedom.
His interest in her psyche and the way in which she behaves becomes apparent in the scene I went over in my previous article on The Portrait of a Lady, where, in front of Mr Touchett, Ralph Touchett and Lord Warburton, Mrs Touchett and Isabel have a brief dispute over Isabel staying downstairs with the gentlemen alone. The narrator tells us that, during their little argument, Ralph hands Isabel her candlestick and then the narrator suggests why he did this, besides giving her a source of light with which to go upstairs, “he had been watching her; it had seemed to him her temper was involved – an accident that might be interesting.” James therefore suggests to the reader that Ralph gives the candlestick to Isabel to see if what she does with it in her vexed state; conducting a sort of improvised social experiment on her. Unfortunately for him, she decides on this occasion to swallow her pride and conform to Mrs Touchett’s wishes, but this moment does suggest that Ralph Touchett has been studying Isabel’s character and wants to see just how much of a free-spirit she is.
Though I think that, in his writing of Ralph, James doesn’t see Ralph as a manipulator of Isabel (though he does have a rather mischievous side to him), but as an enabler. When his father, Daniel Touchett, is on his deathbed and they are discussing the will, Ralph insists that sixty thousand pounds shouldn’t go to him, but should instead go to Isabel, saying that he wants to put the “best opportunities […] into Isabel’s reach”. Ralph hopes that by giving her such wealth, such economic power, she will truly be free to tread her own path in life without there being any necessity for her to marry and compromise her liberty. He wants to watch her fly.
However, as I pointed out in my previous article on the novel, Ralph’s plan backfires as it makes her a target of the truly manipulative fortune hunter, Gilbert Osmond. And though Ralph characteristically sees through Osmond and tries to warn her that if she marries Osmond she will “be put into a cage”, Isabel ignores him. In trying to give her the key to her freedom, Ralph tragically, unintentionally gives her the key to her jail cell. Despite being such a deft reader of character, Ralph makes a fatal error with Isabel.
Yet his dying days give Isabel a chance to escape Osmond, allowing her one last chance to reflect on whether to remain under Osmond’s tyranny or leave him and resurrect her personal independence. They also set the scene for a highly poignant conversation between the two cousins, in which one can’t help but feel admiration for Ralph.
Ralph, then, is one of the most interesting characters in James’s The Portrait of a Lady, as well as one of the most likeable in his fiction.