Isabel Archer, from Albany, the most intellectual of three daughters (who go largely unmentioned) moves to Europe with her Aunt Lydia Touchett, where she meets her cousins at Gardencourt: Mr. Touchett, an American banker living out his last days, and Ralph Touchett, her consumptive cousin that reamins her closest companion throughout. She also meets Lord Warburton, whose marriage offer she refuses. When Mr. Touchett dies, Ralp gives over his inheritance to Isable, wanting her to be free of amrriage (for instance, of Casper Goodwood, an American suitor that follows her all over Europe. She is accompanied throughout by Henrietta Stackpole, a militantly modern pro-American, proto-feminist journalist who proves to be a great friend despite appearing vulgar at first (she marries Mr. Bantling, a minor character except that he presages uxorious man of the 20th century). Meeting Madame Merle (high in Mrs. Touchett’s esteem), she goes to Italy, where she meets Gabriel Osmond, a aesthetic dilletante (American expat) with whom she falls in love, thanks to Merle’s maneuvering and much to everyone’s chagrin. All goes wrong. She hates her husband, who hates her. It turns out that Merle is his ex-lover, and mother of Pansy Osmond. Isable returns to England despite her husband’s wishes in order to be with Ralph during his final days. They are reconciled. Soon after he dies, Casper Goodwood tries to propose violently. She resists, and the novel ends with her planning to return to Osmond.
Aesthetics: much attention given to actual portraits, but characters are constantly described in explicitly aesthetic terms. There is a danger, as in Osmond’s case, the one takes aesthetic distance to a cold extreme, transforming everyone into objects. Pansy is an extreme case.
Proximity: The desire for nearness, which is ubiquitous, counteracts the aesthetic impulse. Symapthetic characters travel great distance in order to be near to Isabel, the central aesthetic object. She herself moves in and out of her artistic state (wearing a mask at times, and breaking down at others, going near to Ralph in the end, despite her being useless to his recovery.)
Money: Draw parallel with Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. Will becomes central enabler of evil rather than of good.
Love: Ralph goes on about love in the end, but it fails to rewrite lives devoid of it.
Translation/Original: Isabal is described as on original—unmediated—that is, as pure, in terms of currency.
Imagination: Isabel wants to fill out the limits of her imagination, which is what art does, too.
Life: Isabel is constantly employing this term to stand in for a poorly developed concept of personal freedom.
Suffering – track as plot device.