The Portrait of a Lady By Henry James Summary and Analysis Chapters 32-35

Summary

As soon as Caspar Goodwood hears that Isabel is engaged, he comes straight to Florence to see her. Isabel receives him in her aunt's house. He tells her frankly that he is disappointed and is selfish enough to wish her anything except marriage to another man. She wants to know if he told Henrietta. He tells her that Henrietta will find it out soon enough and will come herself to scold Isabel. Isabel knows that her friends do not like Mr. Osmond, but she says that she doesn't marry to please her friends. Goodwood wants to know something about Osmond. Isabel explains that he is a nobody without profession or reputation.

Goodwood inquires about what happened to Isabel's resolve not to marry, and she is unable to justify her change of opinion. And furthermore, she dislikes being placed in a position where she has to defend her decision. Therefore, she is delighted to hear that Goodwood will leave Florence the next day.

After Caspar Goodwood has left, Isabel decides it is time to inform her aunt of her engagement. Mrs. Touchett is not surprised, but she is vexed with Madame Merle. She tells Isabel that Madame Merle has not acted honorably in the entire matter. Isabel cannot understand what Madame Merle has to do with the situation. She refuses to believe it when Mrs. Touchett says that Madame Merle engineered the engagement or that Madame Merle could have prevented it. Isabel denies this. Her aunt, however, continues to be annoyed at Madame Merle. She maintains that she saw it coming and refused to act because she had trusted Madame Merle and now she feels betrayed. When Isabel persists in denying Madame Merle's influence, Mrs. Touchett says, "She can do anything; that's what I've always liked her for."

She wonders if Isabel would have listened to Ralph. Isabel admits that she would not have listened if Ralph abused Mr. Osmond; Mrs. Touchett, however, points out that Ralph never abuses anyone. Isabel tells her aunt that she refuses to defend Mr. Osmond — she does not feel it necessary.

Some days later Ralph arrives, but even if he disapproves of her engagement, Isabel is determined not to let it spoil her happiness. Ralph, however, does not speak of the matter for some time. One morning after she returns from a ride, Isabel finds Ralph half asleep in the garden. When she approaches he tells her that he was thinking of her. He apologizes for not having congratulated her on her engagement, but says he has been thinking of what to say. He fears that she is going to be put into a cage and he reminds her that she used to love her liberty. Isabel thinks that Ralph's criticism is a failure in trust. He explains that he trusts her but not Gilbert Osmond. Finally Ralph tells her that it is not the type of marriage he thought she would make. He is disappointed that she has settled for something so low. Furthermore, he can't get over the feeling that Osmond is "small . . . narrow, selfish. He takes himself so seriously." Finally Ralph tells Isabel that she was meant to do "something better than to keep guard over the sensibilities of a sterile dilettante." What hurts Ralph most is that Isabel really believes that she is right. "She was wrong, but she believed; she was deluded, but she was dismally consistent." When he tells Isabel that he feels sold out, especially because when one's in error, one's in trouble. Isabel tells him in anger that she will never complain of her trouble to him.

One day, while strolling with her, Osmond mentions to Isabel that their marriage is opposed by her friends. He bases his conclusion on the fact that he has not been congratulated. He feels that her family objects because he has no money and she is a great heiress.

When Pansy finds out that Isabel is to be her stepmother, she is delighted both because she sincerely likes Isabel and because she thinks Isabel well suited for her father. Later, the Countess Gemini anticipates that Isabel will help Osmond's family but she is afraid they will not be much credit to Isabel.

Analysis

These chapters, along with the others just preceding, show James' technique again. He has an event occur — this time it is Isabel's engagement to Gilbert Osmond. Then, he presents as many views of this subject as he can. We begin by observing Caspar Goodwood's bitter reactions. Then, we are acquainted with the reactions of Isabel's aunt to the event and how she censures not Isabel but Madame Merle. This is followed by Ralph's more objective and humane opinion of the engagement. He wishes nothing but for Isabel to find happiness and is disappointed solely because he thinks that Isabel will find only unhappiness. The next views are rather briefer-Osmond discloses his thoughts about the engagement and its reception by Isabel's family and friends; then we see Pansy's and the Countess Gemini's reactions. Thus, James' technique is here fully illustrated. An event occurs and then it is discussed by as many people as is possible. Each contribution leads the reader to a more refined and precise understanding of the situation.

In the discussion with Mrs. Touchett, we see that the aunt is astute enough to recognize the role played by Madame Merle. Isabel, however, believes so strongly in her own independent judgment that she cannot accept this fact. She denies that Madame Merle has acted with duplicity, but we, the readers, know that Mrs. Touchett is, in this case, correct.

In her interview with Ralph, Isabel is somewhat different. Again she prefers her own judgment to that of any one else's. She becomes angry when Ralph refers to Osmond as a sterile dilettante. She maintains that Ralph is not a disinterested person. What Isabel fails to comprehend is that a totally disinterested person would not care whether she married Osmond or not. But the subtlety here is that Ralph is partly disappointed because he had hoped to see Isabel do something more creditable than marry a "nobody" with no fortune and no position. He had thought that she could soar higher than Osmond. Isabel, however, contends that she marries to please only herself. This is her streak of absolute independence. Aside from this, one of her worst mistakes is in promising not to bother Ralph with her troubles in case her marriage turns out badly.

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