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The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Chapters 22–23 | Summary



Chapter 22

In an apartment in a Tuscan villa, Gilbert Osmond sits with his daughter and two nuns who have brought her to her father's home from their convent in Rome where the girl has been a student. The nuns express their affection for the girl, and Osmond seems pleased with how polite and submissive he finds her. The nuns say Pansy Osmond is perfectly fit for the world, but they hope Osmond will decide to return her to them after the holidays for some more time. When her father tells Pansy to pick the nuns some flowers, she asks their permission as well as her father's to do so. As the nuns prepare to leave, Madame Merle arrives. Osmond compliments Madame Merle twice on her appearance, and it is clear the two have some type of close relationship, as Osmond claims she will help him decide whether Pansy should return to the convent. She has been a regular visitor of Pansy's in Rome. Although Pansy wishes to see the nuns off, Madame Merle tells her to stay and is pleased when Pansy obeys, despite her disappointment.

Madame Merle and Osmond want to speak of things they do not wish Pansy to hear, so Osmond sends her into the garden. When Osmond accuses Madame Merle of being motivated by her ambitions, Madame Merle tells Osmond her ambitions are for him. She would like him to meet her friend Isabel Archer, whom she hopes he will marry. She tells Osmond of Isabel's many virtues, including her fortune. Osmond is skeptical Isabel meets all his requirements and ideals for a woman. Madame Merle notes Pansy hasn't returned from outside and comments that the girl dislikes her.

Chapter 23

Madame Merle is staying with Ralph Touchett, Isabel, and Mrs. Touchett at Mrs. Touchett's home in Florence. Isabel enjoys seeing the beauty of the city with her cousin. Madame Merle again speaks of Gilbert Osmond to Isabel, describing him as man who doesn't exert himself to reveal his virtues to just anyone. Osmond visits Isabel, and she observes him. He invites Isabel to visit his home and meet his daughter.

Isabel asks Ralph Touchett about Osmond, and Ralph says he doesn't know him very well. He believes Osmond lost his wife in childbirth and that he is a poor gentleman who has no occupation but lives off his meager income. The two also speak of Madame Merle. Isabel suspects Ralph knows something about the lady that meets with his disapproval, but Ralph will only say Madame Merle is too perfect. Ralph thinks Madame Merle has much to teach Isabel and that the friendship will probably run its course without causing Isabel any harm.


In Chapter 22 the author introduces Gilbert Osmond and his daughter, Pansy. Gilbert seems very polite and interested to see that his daughter has been educated properly by the nuns. He interacts with his daughter in a fond but authoritative way. He tells her what she may and may not do. He never asks what she would like. Pansy is completely submissive, doing everything she is told, asking permission from both her father and the nuns. She offers no opinions except when asked, and her personality is as slight as her body. She does seem genuinely attached to the nuns, and readers may feel sorry for Pansy when Madame Merle orders her to stay inside instead of seeing them off.

Chapters 22 and 23 hint at some sort of relationship between Osmond, Madame Merle, and Pansy Osmond, but the exact nature of their connection is not yet clear. From her entry into the Osmond's home, readers can tell Madame Merle has some type of role in the family, or at least an intimate relationship. Osmond indicates she will have some say about Pansy's education. Pansy obeys Madame Merle, but Madame Merle perceives the girl doesn't like her. The mystery around the relationship of the three adds tension and suspense to the novel.

The problem that drives the novel to its eventual climax is first revealed in Chapter 22. Readers can infer from Madame Merle's recommendation of Isabel Archer, mentioning her fortune specifically, and her statement that she wishes Osmond to marry Isabel, that Osmond and Madame Merle are embarking upon a plot to get Isabel's money. Exactly why is not yet clear. At first, Osmond is skeptical he would even be interested enough in a niece of Mrs. Touchett's to consider marrying her. The sense of danger to Isabel will slowly build, but it begins here. In Chapter 23 the first meeting of Osmond and Isabel is subdued. Neither seems particularly taken with the other, and Madame Merle does most of the talking. Osmond is interested enough to invite Isabel to his home to meet his daughter.

In Chapter 23 Madame Merle grooms Isabel to fall for Osmond by telling her Osmond is a challenge, inciting her curiosity. She says Osmond doesn't exert himself to be charming for just anyone. He won't reveal his virtues to those he judges unworthy. Madame Merle knows Isabel will be interested by such a mystery and may work to bring him out, although Isabel doesn't seem to take the bait at first. However, readers can see that Madame Merle's strategy has worked, at least to some extent, because Isabel goes to Ralph Touchett for more information about Osmond. Isabel also accepts his invitation to visit his home and meet Pansy.

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