"But who's 'quite independent,' and in what sense is the term used? – that point's not yet settled. Does the expression apply more particularly to the young lady my mother has adopted, or does it characterise her sisters equally? – and is it used in a moral or in a financial sense? Does it mean that they've been left well off, or that they wish to be under no obligations? or does it simply mean that they're fond of their own way?" (1.14)
The idea of the independent woman in question amuses Ralph – he’s not exactly sure what an independent woman (who’s not his mother) would be like, and, from Mrs. Touchett’s hilariously cryptic telegraph, it’s impossible to tell.
"Oh no; she has not adopted me. I'm not a candidate for adoption."
"I beg a thousand pardons," Ralph murmured. "I meant – I meant – " He hardly knew what he meant.
"You meant she has taken me up. Yes; she likes to take people up. She has been very kind to me; but," she added with a certain visible eagerness of desire to be explicit, "I'm very fond of my liberty." (2.18)
Isabel asserts herself in the face of Mrs. Touchett’s interest – she makes it quite clear to Ralph that she is still in control of herself, not his mother.
"Well, if you'll be very good, and do everything I tell you I'll take you there," Mrs. Touchett declared.
Our young woman's emotion deepened; she flushed a little and smiled at her aunt in silence. "Do everything you tell me? I don't think I can promise that."
"No, you don't look like a person of that sort. You're fond of your own way; but it's not for me to blame you."
"And yet, to go to Florence," the girl exclaimed in a moment, "I'd promise almost anything!" (3.10-11)
Mrs. Touchett offers a problematic opportunity to Isabel – the girl values her freedom of choice, but the idea of a new life in the other world of Europe is too tempting to pass up. Clearly, she would like to have things both ways: be able to stick to her own ways, but still go with Mrs. Touchett.
It was one of her theories that Isabel Archer was very fortunate in being independent, and that she ought to make some very enlightened use of that state. She never called it the state of solitude, much less of singleness; she thought such descriptions weak, and, besides, her sister Lily constantly urged her to come and abide. (6.2)
Isabel has many ideas about herself and ponders her many qualities often. Her independence is something of a valuable, intriguing mystery to her – she’s not sure what being an independent woman exactly entails, but she is confident that it ought to be taken advantage of.
"I shall always tell you," her aunt answered, "whenever I see you taking what seems to me too much liberty."
"Pray do; but I don't say I shall always think your remonstrance just."
"Very likely not. You're too fond of your own ways."
"Yes, I think I'm very fond of them. But I always want to know the things one shouldn't do."
"So as to do them?" asked her aunt.
"So as to choose," said Isabel. (7.16)
This sums Isabel up in a nutshell: she loves to know what society demands, and then have the choice between her desires and the world’s expectations. Her aunt sees Isabel’s rebellious tendencies, which encourage her to do things her own way.
"Don’t think me unkind if I say it’s just that – being out of your sight – that I like. If you were in the same place I should feel you were watching me, and I don’t like that – I like my liberty too much. If there’s a thing in the world I’m fond of," she went on with a slight recurrence of grandeur, "it’s my personal independence." (16.24)
Caspar Goodwood’s fervent declarations of love just make Isabel feel stifled – she worries that, if they’re ever together, even just in the same city, he’ll make her feel limited or restricted.
He had never supposed she hadn't wings and the need of beautiful free movements--he wasn't, with his own long arms and strides, afraid of any force in her. Isabel's words, if they had been meant to shock him, failed of the mark and only made him smile with the sense that here was common ground. "Who would wish less to curtail your liberty than I? What can give me greater pleasure than to see you perfectly independent – doing whatever you like? It's to make you independent that I want to marry you."
"That's a beautiful sophism," said the girl with a smile more beautiful still.
"An unmarried woman – a girl of your age – isn't independent. There are all sorts of things she can't do. She's hampered at every step." (16.25)
Caspar actually values Isabel’s freedom and independence as much as she does – we get the feeling that it’s what makes him love her so much. He has a similar ardent curiosity and fascination towards Isabel that Ralph does – and loving her in this way doesn’t mean possession, it means giving her the freedom to do even more.
"I'm not in my first youth – I can do what I choose – I belong quite to the independent class. I've neither father nor mother; I'm poor and of a serious disposition; I'm not pretty. I therefore am not bound to be timid and conventional; indeed I can't afford such luxuries. Besides, I try to judge things for myself; to judge wrong, I think, is more honourable than not to judge at all. I don't wish to be a mere sheep in the flock; I wish to choose my fate and know something of human affairs beyond what other people think it compatible with propriety to tell me." (16.25)
Isabel sees her situation, pre-inheritance, in a glowingly positive light; with nothing in particular to make her exceptional, except for her own sense of adventure, she thinks she is free to do anything, whether or not it’s appropriate.
That love of liberty of which she had given Caspar Goodwood so bold a sketch was as yet almost exclusively theoretic; she had not been able to indulge it on a large scale. But it appeared to her she had done something; she had tasted of the delight, if not of battle, at least of victory; she had done what was truest to her plan. (17.1)
Isabel, though shaken by her altercation with Caspar, is proud of herself for sticking to her guns – in refusing his proposal, she has proven her point: she is independent, liberated, and doesn’t need a husband to support her.
"Do you know where you're drifting?" Henrietta pursued, holding out her bonnet delicately. "No, I haven't the least idea, and I find it very pleasant not to know. A swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can't see – that's my idea of happiness." (17.5)
Isabel’s dreams are still quite naïve and romantic at this point – she just wants to let herself go and see where the road takes her.
Ralph leaned back in his chair with folded arms; his eyes were fixed for some time in meditation. At last, with the air of a man fairly mustering courage, "I take a great interest in my cousin," he said, "but not the sort of interest you desire. I shall not live many years; but I hope I shall live long enough to see what she does with herself. She's entirely independent of me; I can exercise very little influence upon her life. But I should like to do something for her." (18.25)
Ralph is intrigued by Isabel’s sense of potential. He doesn’t want to tie her down by attempting to marry her (or by marrying her off to anyone else); instead, he wishes to furnish her with further opportunities to express herself and her ideas.
"I had treated myself to a charming vision of your future," Ralph observed… "I had amused myself with planning out a high destiny for you. There was to be nothing of this sort in it. You were not to come down so easily or so soon."
"Come down, you say?"
"Well, that renders my sense of what has happened to you. You seemed to me to be soaring far up in the blue – to be sailing in the bright light, over the heads of men. Suddenly someone tosses up a faded rosebud – a missile that should never have reached you – and straight you drop to the ground. It hurts me," said Ralph audaciously, "hurts me as if I had fallen myself!" (34.10)
Isabel’s free-flying period was thrilling to watch, and Ralph admits that he’d hoped that she’d continue in that vein. However, the sense that Osmond has brought her down makes him feel as though the independent and wild nature of her character has been ruined.