The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Chapters 24–25 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 24

Isabel Archer and Madame Merle go to Gilbert Osmond's hilltop home for a visit. The narrator describes the building as "grave and strong"—a place that, once inside, one "would need an act of energy to get out." Isabel enters to meet Osmond's sister first, Countess Gemini, a bird-like woman who bickers with her brother and tells Isabel she has only come to his house to meet the new, young visitor; then she meets Pansy, Osmond's shy, young daughter. The countess notes that Isabel has been quite brought into the family, calling her "poor Isabel." She says her brother's favorite subjects are Machiavelli, Vittoria Colonna, and Metastasio. Despite Madame Merle's objections, the countess says to her, "You yourself are Machiavelli—you yourself are Vittoria Colonna!"

While Madame Merle takes the countess outside, Osmond asks Isabel what she thinks of his sister, and proceeds to tell Isabel about the countess's troubles, including an unpleasant husband. Pansy Osmond, silent, stands embracing her father and follows him, holding his hand as Osmond seeks to entertain Isabel with conversation and by showing and explaining his large collection of historic and artistic objects. Isabel recognizes he is making an effort and finds him charming. He claims he has renounced all ambition, once he determined at a young age he could not be as exceptional as the pope, an emperor, or a sultan. Instead, he merely hopes to live quietly.

Chapter 25

The countess congratulates Madame Merle on her scheme regarding Isabel's money, which Madame Merle first denies but later warns the countess not to interfere, because "the matter you allude to concerns three persons much stronger of purpose than yourself." The countess says Madame Merle and Osmond together are toxic but insists she will speak to Isabel. Madame Merle believes Isabel is already in love with Osmond. The countess doesn't believe Osmond could ever make Isabel happy.

Pansy asks permission to make the party tea. She says she likes Isabel very much. Madame Merle and the countess speak of finding Pansy a husband someday soon, and they find each other irritating.

Analysis

Chapter 24 introduces readers to Countess Gemini, and she provides quite a bit of insight into Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle. The countess seems to be aware of Osmond's and Madame Merle's intentions toward Isabel Archerwhen she laments how Isabel has virtually become part of the family already. In the countess's identification of Osmond's favorite three subjects, readers get a window into his personality and values. Niccolò Machiavelli was a Florentine philosopher and government leader of the 16th century who's most well-known work, The Prince, encourages rulers to concern themselves primarily with the necessity and results of their actions rather than morality: the ends justify the means. Vittoria Colonna was an Italian poet and friend of Michelangelo who was socially well connected. Pietro Metastasio was an Italian poet and opera singer and composer in the 17th century whose work extolled the virtues of the leadership of the nobility. Readers can infer from these favorites, if the countess is correct, that Osmond is not above using people to get what he wants, that he values the nobility and the arts above just about all else. The countess reveals still more by identifying Madame Merle as Machiavelli and Vittoria Colonna. Madame Merle is not concerned with the morality of her decision to use Isabel and manipulate her because the end—a fortune for Osmond—will be desirable, although what Madame Merle gets out of it is still unclear. Like Vittoria Colonna, Madame Merle knows powerful people and befriends them.

Readers see Osmond manipulate Isabel almost imperceptibly in Chapter 24. He goes to great pains to give her his undivided attention, something she knows he does only for those he deems worth the effort. He showcases his knowledge and collection of antiquities, all with his devoted little girl on his arm, playing on her admiration of culture, intelligence, and affection for family. He is careful to discredit his sister lest Isabel be concerned at their bickering and perhaps because he suspects she may be on to him and try to warn Isabel. He mentions the countess's unhappy marriage specifically. Now, any warning from her away from an engagement may be written off as a jaded perspective.

In Chapter 25 Madame Merle admits her scheme aloud to another person, although only after the countess recognized it on her own. Readers who have suspected Osmond will be a poor husband have their fears increased by the countess's claims that she worries for Isabel's happiness, and Madame Merle's conviction that Isabel is already in love with him. The foreshadowing in Chapter 24 about the house being "grave and strong" and hard to get out of is now quite foreboding.

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