The tale of a young woman, Isabel Archer, who challenges the confines of her sheltered existence on the hermetically closed American expatriate circuit in late 19th century Europe. Hungry to experience the world, Isabel rejects a lucrative marriage proposal, stunning both her suitor and the relatives with whom she is staying in England. However, an admiring male cousin, Ralph Touchett, secretly lends his support to Isabel's daring pursuit by convincing his dying father to leave her a generous share of his fortune. Yet Isabel's large inheritance does not bring her the freedom she so desires.
Her headstrong innocence proves no match against the evil manipulations of a duplicitous friend, Madame Merle, who leads Isabel into an unfortunate marriage to a self-serving and devious dilettante, Gilbert Osmond. Isabel suffers gravely as a result of her disastrous choice, but after the dark truth behind Madame Merle and Osmond's web of deception and betrayal is revealed, she awakens to a curious freedom.