The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Chapters 30–31 | Summary



Chapter 30

Back at Mrs. Touchett's home in Florence, Isabel Archer sees Madame Merle who says she is also planning to visit Pansy Osmond, but that one visitor will suffice if Isabel doesn't mind the potential scandal of being seen going to visit a single man's house unaccompanied. Isabel goes because she promised she would and because she doesn't care about the opinions of vulgar people. She spends an hour talking with Pansy and tells the girl to give her father pleasure by being good and obedient. The girl says she lives for that alone and that she would marry her father if he wasn't her father.

Chapter 31

A year later Isabel returns to Florence a changed woman; at least she thinks so. She recalls the months in Switzerland and Paris she had spent with her sister, Lily, and her children. When they left, she traveled to Rome to meet Madame Merle. The two then traveled east to Greece, Turkey, and Egypt. Isabel learned more of Madame Merle's life story, and she perceived Madame Merle's morality to be different from her own, although she likes her as much as ever. The two returned to Rome where they were joined for two weeks by Gilbert Osmond, of whom she has thought often during the last year; then Isabel returned to her aunt in Florence.


In Chapter 30 Pansy Osmond shows readers Gilbert Osmond's ideal woman. She is, in the midst of the rest of his collection of fine objects, is perfect, beautiful, submissive, and blindly obedient. She literally believes her purpose in life is to give him pleasure, and she promises she will always obey him. Readers may cringe a bit when Pansy declares she would marry her father if she could, as well as at Isabel Archer's admonitions to the girl to please her father with her obedience. Pansy is the product of the education and grooming Osmond has chosen for her. Readers should note that none of the other characters seem to see anything wrong with this. Even Isabel finds the girl delightful and encourages her to put her father's pleasure above all else. This may represent the role of girls in the family at the time, and it also foreshadows Isabel's own role in Osmond's life as their relationship changes.

In Chapter 31 the narrator provides snapshots of Isabel's year of travel, which takes place over the space of time between Chapters 30 and 31. Isabel thinks the travel has changed her and made her wiser. Readers will have to wait and see evidence in order to judge the claim. Isabel has had a taste of the free travel for which she longed, although she was accompanied by Madame Merle some of the time and Osmond for the last two weeks, so readers may wonder what influence they have had on Isabel. Even Isabel herself begins to question Madame Merle's morality and, perhaps, even their friendship.

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