The Portrait of a Lady By Henry James Summary and Analysis Chapters 22-23

Summary

About six months after Mr. Touchett's death, a gentleman named Gilbert Osmond is seated in his drawing room with two sisters from a convent and his young fifteen-year-old daughter, Pansy. The nuns have just brought Pansy from the convent where she had been in school for a long time. Gilbert Osmond is expressing his satisfaction with the manner in which his daughter has been educated. She has been taught to obey her father and all people of authority without question. In his view, she has the perfect education. "She's perfect. She has no faults." The sisters think that she is now prepared for the world.

Just as the sisters are about to leave, Madame Merle arrives for a visit. Pansy is about to accompany her father to see the sisters off when Madame Merle tells her to remain. Pansy faithfully obeys even though she is disappointed, and Madame Merle remarks that she has learned to obey quite well. When Gilbert Osmond returns, Madame Merle begins to discuss Pansy's education. Osmond suggests that Pansy leave the room so that they may discuss things more openly. After Pansy leaves, Madame Merle tells Gilbert Osmond that she wants him to make the acquaintance of Isabel Archer. Following a discussion about Isabel, Madame Merle tells Osmond that she wants him to marry Isabel. She counts on Osmond to put forth an effort and to demonstrate his "adorable taste" to Isabel. As she is about to leave, Pansy returns. Madame Merle makes the observation to Osmond that Pansy does not like her and then she departs.

Since Madame Merle was visiting Mrs. Touchett, it was only natural that Osmond should come to the villa to see his old friend. And once there, he is bound to meet Isabel. Since Madame Merle has spoken so highly of Osmond and since Isabel thought so highly of Madame Merle, Isabel decided on their first meeting that it was better to get an impression of this gentleman than to try to produce one herself. At the end of his first visit, Osmond invites Isabel to visit his home with Madame Merle to see his collection of art objects.

After their first meeting, Madame Merle tells Isabel how charming she was. This irritates Isabel more than anything Madame Merle has ever done. She lets Madame Merle know that she is under no obligation to be charming to this man.

Isabel requests Ralph's opinion of Gilbert Osmond. She learns that Osmond has lived most of his life in Italy and probably has little money but possesses exquisite taste. He suggests that Isabel ask Madame Merle about Osmond because Madame Merle knows him better. He then speaks of Madame Merle with "exaggerated respect" and says that her only fault is that she is "indescribably blameless . . . the only woman . . . who never gives one a chance to criticize her." He continues by saying that "she's too good, too kind, too clever, too learned, too accomplished, too everything. She's too complete But at the same time, he recommends her as a companion for Isabel because she knows so much about the world and Isabel can learn so much from her.

Analysis

Chapter 22 is an abrupt shift from Isabel to a new character. We meet for the first time Gilbert Osmond and his daughter Pansy. Contrary to the typical James practice, the author here allows the reader to get an inside view of one of the characters before the main character comes to that insight. In other words, after this chapter, we know that Madame Merle plans to marry Isabel to Gilbert Osmond. Our future views of Madame Merle and Osmond are then colored by this fact. Furthermore, we see that there is a very close and suspicious relationship between Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond — a relationship which will not become clear until the final pages of the novel.

In retrospect, we see that the type of person that Osmond likes is someone like his daughter Pansy — a person who has been taught to perform all the correct rituals and ceremonies with outward perfection but who obeys him with complete subservience. This will be what he expects of Isabel as a wife.

Osmond's tastes here are emphasized. His outstanding quality is that he possesses perfect taste. This quality will be instrumental in causing Isabel to fall in love with him. It is, of course, his only recommendation.

One element that will be emphasized throughout the novel is Pansy's dislike for Madame Merle. Realization of this will later make Isabel feel pity for Madame Merle in spite of all the treachery on Madame Merle's part.

More and more, Ralph is beginning to assume the role of Isabel's confidant. After meeting Osmond, she seeks out his opinion of the gentleman. The reader knows that Ralph's judgment of both Osmond and Madame Merle is the correct one, but even Ralph knows that Isabel must make her own judgments. In his praise of Madame Merle and Osmond, we should realize that both of these people are illusory, that their taste and their abilities are artificially contrived and false. Isabel, however, must learn this at a greater personal sacrifice.

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