The Portrait of a Lady By Henry James Summary and Analysis Chapters 19-20

Summary

Isabel's friendship for Madame Merle ripens very quickly during the days of Mr. Touchett's illness. She finds herself saying things to this lady more candidly than she has ever spoken to others. There was no doubt Madame Merle "had great merits — she was charming, sympathetic, intelligent, cultivated. More than this . . . she was rare, superior, and pre-eminent." She is, in general, the only woman whom Isabel thoroughly admires. Yet Isabel knows that Henrietta Stackpole would never like Madame Merle, but this realization does not alter Isabel's fondness for both people. If Madame Merle had a fault "it was that she was not natural."

Mrs. Touchett's view of Madame Merle helps influence Isabel's. Mrs. Touchett thinks that Madame Merle "is incapable of a mistake" and that she hasn't a fault. In their conversations, Madame Merle promises Isabel that she will someday tell about her life, but she has friends, especially an American named Gilbert Osmond, whom she wants Isabel to know. On one occasion, Isabel asked Madame Merle about Ralph and was told that Ralph did not like her, even though they have maintained cordial relations. She warns Isabel that perhaps someday Isabel will come to dislike her. Isabel declares that she will never dislike Madame Merle. Later, Madame Merle tells Isabel how ambitious she was when she was young. She admits that she is still "very ambitious." As they grow to know each other, Madame Merle comments on Isabel's excellences. There is only one drawback; she wishes Isabel had more money.

Madame Merle thinks it proper for her to leave, and sometime after her departure, Isabel hears that Henrietta is going to Paris. Later the same day, she hears of her uncle's death.

Some weeks later in London, Madame Merle pays Mrs. Touchett a visit and learns that Mr. Touchett left Isabel a fortune. She thinks immediately what a clever girl Isabel must be for getting this wealth left to her.

Soon thereafter, Isabel journeys to Paris with her aunt. There she meets Edward Rosier, whom she had known as a child. She also sees Henrietta again and is told that Mr. Touchett made a mistake in leaving Isabel so much money. Henrietta is afraid that it might ruin Isabel.

Analysis

Chapter 19 is devoted to picturing Madame Merle. The reader must always keep in mind that Madame Merle is one of the most accomplished women in the world. It would, of course, take a woman as clever and as perfect as Madame Merle to deceive Isabel. Even here though, we are given a few insights into Madame Merle's true nature. She was not a natural person; she is the woman of acquired graces. She is, then, the European who has developed forms, rituals, and ceremonies to their highest degree of perfection. We do not learn the real truth about her until the end of the book. She uses her cultivated pose to cover up an essentially base nature. Therefore, when Mrs. Touchett says that Madame Merle does not have a fault, this is a comment on Madame Merle's external facade. Inwardly, one could say that she hasn't a virtue except her rare ability to appear always pleasant, charming, witty, etc.

Madame Merle also begins cleverly to interest Isabel in the character of Gilbert Osmond. She is too intelligent to push Isabel toward Gilbert; instead, she begins to plant some subtle hints about Osmond's talents this early in their relationship. We should also note that Madame Merle admits that she still has great ambitions. One of her unstated aspirations is to marry Pansy into an eminent family. To do this, she will need Isabel's money at her disposal. Thus, when she finds out that Isabel has refused Lord Warburton, she is pleased because she now knows that Isabel has different tastes and at the same time has some control over Lord Warburton.

In Paris, Isabel meets Edward Rosier. He will later play an important role in Pansy Osmond's life and consequently, will become a part of Isabel's life. She also meets Henrietta, who is apprehensive lest Isabel's inheritance be the cause of her ruin. Ironically Henrietta for one time is right.

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