The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Chapters 38–39 | Summary



Chapter 38

Edward Rosier visits Madame Merle who tells him to limit his visits to Gilbert Osmond's home and to hope Osmond may change his mind with time. Rosier visits Pansy Osmond and is anxious to confirm Pansy still returns his feelings after Osmond suggests his daughter doesn't care for Rosier. Pansy says she loves Rosier but that her father has forbidden the relationship. She will not disobey her father. As Rosier speaks to Isabel Archer, Lord Warburton arrives. He has accompanied Ralph Touchett on the journey to Rome, and tells Isabel that her cousin is very ill, likely dying. Lord Warburton is introduced to Pansy.

Chapter 39

Ralph recalls Isabel's marriage ceremony. Madame Merle and Henrietta Stackpole did not attend. Isabel wished Osmond could get along with Henrietta, but the two dislike each other greatly. Ralph did not see Isabel for about two years after the wedding, and Mrs. Touchett tried not to think about her. Mrs. Touchett had told Madame Merle she disapproved of the role she had in the marriage, and Madame Merle persisted in her claim that she had nothing to do with it.

Ralph believes Isabel has changed since her marriage, becoming a tool and reflection of Osmond. It is his curiosity to see how she is doing that keeps him alive. Both he and Lord Warburton have come to Rome to see Isabel, although they had other pretexts. They decide to stay in Rome rather than continuing their journey. Rome isn't a good climate for Ralph's health, but he doesn't care. Lord Warburton tells Ralph he is romantically interested in Pansy, despite his being 20 years older. Ralph suspects Pansy's greatest asset in Lord Warburton's eyes is her proximity and relationship to Isabel.


In Chapter 38 readers learn that Pansy Osmond loves Edward Rosier, but she is resolved not to disobey her father who continues to manipulate those around him (as when he tells Rosier Pansy doesn't return his affections). Gilbert Osmond's greatest control continues to be his power over Pansy, who will not pursue her feelings for Rosier despite the fact it is what she wants. Osmond dislikes everyone in Isabel Archer's life, and he effectively isolates her from her friends and family as a result: Ralph Touchett didn't see her for about two years after the wedding.

Ralph's health has declined in the time since readers last saw him. Readers learn in Chapter 38 that Lord Warburton is afraid Ralph is dying. The narrator says in Chapter 39 the only thing that has kept Ralph alive is the desire to see how his cousin is doing; he has seen very little of her since the wedding, which has distanced the cousins. In order to be close to Isabel, Ralph decides to stay in Rome, despite its being bad for his health.

In these two chapters the author introduces a competition between two men for the affections and hand of a young, innocent girl. This plot development around Pansy echoes the start of the novel, which featured the dual proposals of Caspar Goodwood and Lord Warburton for Isabel. In Chapter 38 Lord Warburton meets Isabel's stepdaughter, Pansy. He confesses his attraction to the girl in Chapter 39, expressing some small concern over their 20-year age difference. Ralph thinks Lord Warburton is more interested in Isabel than in her stepdaughter.

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