The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Chapters 26–27 | Summary



Chapter 26

Gilbert Osmond visits Mrs. Touchett's home five times within the next fortnight (two-week period), and both Ralph and Mrs. Touchett conclude the reason for the increase must be to see Isabel Archer. Mrs. Touchett does not think the match would be to her niece's advantage. Madame Merle acts as if the idea of Osmond pursuing Isabel has never occurred to her and offers to ask Osmond if it is true. Mrs. Touchett correctly asserts Osmond's daughter would benefit from Isabel's money, too, because it would provide her with a dowry. Isabel, meanwhile, is unaware of the speculation about something between her and Osmond. She continues to enjoy his company. Isabel learns more about Osmond's family and the countess's unfortunate marriage. The countess pays Isabel a visit, and Isabel finds her very self-absorbed.

Henrietta Stackpole arrives. Madame Merle resolves to put up with her. Mr. Bantling has arrived in Florence to meet Henrietta. He tells Ralph Touchett he appreciates that Henrietta isn't concerned with what people think. He plans to accompany her from Florence to Rome, and Isabel and Ralph will go, too. When Isabel tells Osmond of her plans, he gets her to invite him to join them. Osmond tells Madame Merle of this positive development. He says Isabel has "only one fault ... too many ideas." He says her ideas are "very bad ones," which is just as well "if they must be sacrificed."

Chapter 27

Isabel revels in the beauty and history of Rome. As she rests during sightseeing, she looks up to see Lord Warburton. He says he didn't know she was in Rome and that he has been traveling abroad for the past six months. He confesses he has written her several letters, which he never sent, and that he still loves her—try as he might to feel otherwise. He promises her he won't bring it up again during their stay in Rome. Henrietta, Mr. Bantling, and Ralph greet Lord Warburton. The five visit Saint Peter's the next day, and as Isabel and Lord Warburton walk around, they meet Gilbert Osmond. Osmond says he has come to see her, and Isabel is reminded of the same statement Lord Warburton made the day he visited Gardencourt and proposed to her. Lord Warburton asks Ralph about Osmond, and Ralph suggests the best way to prevent Isabel from accepting Osmond is to not say anything to her about it.


In Chapter 26 readers find a clue to Madame Merle's reason for promoting a match between Isabel Archer and Gilbert Osmond. The clue is that Isabel's money would benefit Pansy Osmond by providing her with a dowry. A dowry, or sum of money that accompanies the bride into her marriage and thus into the pocket of the groom, would make Pansy more attractive to prospective suitors and might enable her to secure a better match. This clue does not explain fully why such a benefit would mean anything to Madame Merle, though. Readers don't yet have enough information to connect the dots completely.

Madame Merle and Osmond manipulate those around them with skill and ease. In Chapter 26 Madame Merle feigns surprise and doubt at Mrs. Touchett's correct deduction that Osmond is visiting her far more frequently than usual because he wants to see Isabel. She also worries because she knows Osmond has little money, and Isabel's fortune could be the real reason for his interest. Mrs. Touchett even thinks of the advantage the father might see in the money for his daughter's future. Readers know the whole thing was Madame Merle's idea, so her pretended shock at Mrs. Touchett's observations is quite obviously deceitful. She goes so far as to suggest she will have to ask Osmond about it. Osmond easily manipulates Isabel by continuing his attentions. He talks her into inviting him to Rome, and she doesn't even realize he is controlling the course of their relationship. Madame Merle and Osmond are pleased with how their scheme is progressing.

Chapter 26 ends on a sinister note. Osmond says Isabel has just one flaw: her ideas. He thinks her ideas are bad, but it doesn't matter because it is implied he's going to get rid of them. This foreshadows Osmond's plans to curtail Isabel's independence. The entire novel, according to the author, is centered on Isabel's inward life—her ideas. Osmond reveals himself to be the villain of the story by threatening not only what Isabel truly cherishes—her freedom of thought, her intelligence, her ideas—but also the very fabric of the story.

Chapter 27 brings Isabel's two most recent suitors face-to-face. The author compares and contrasts the two suitors in this chapter. Osmond says he came to see her, not anyone else, which is just what Lord Warburton had said the day he proposed to her in Gardencourt. Even the way the two men meet her in Italy mirrors the other. She has two surprise meetings, like two sides of a coin. In the first, she looks up to find Lord Warburton in front of her; in the other, she turns to find Osmond behind her. Their motivations for wanting to marry her, however, could not be more different. Lord Warburton wants to give her all that is his, but Osmond wants to take everything she has away from her.

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