The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Chapters 40–41 | Summary



Chapter 40

Isabel Archer thinks about her marriage and recalls Mrs. Touchett's accusation that Madame Merle was behind it all. Isabel concludes that she freely decided to accept Gilbert Osmond and that she alone is responsible for her choice. She decides "one folly was enough, especially when it was to last forever," and another would not undo the first.

After a walk with Pansy Osmond, to whose care Isabel has devoted herself, Isabel happens upon Madame Merle and Osmond together in the sitting room. Osmond is seated while Madame Merle stands, and the two are gazing at each other, not speaking. Something about the scene gives Isabel "an impression." Osmond leaves quickly, and Madame Merle says she, too, was about to leave. Madame Merle speaks to Isabel about Pansy's suitors. Both women think Lord Warburton would be a better match for the girl than Edward Rosier. Madame Merle knows that Isabel refused Lord Warburton. Madame Merle says Isabel should use her influence to get Lord Warburton to propose to Pansy.

Chapter 41

Isabel wants to arrange the match between Pansy and Lord Warburton because she knows it would please Osmond, and she hopes doing this for her husband will make her "a good wife." Isabel tells Osmond she is trying to act in a way that he wishes her to act, even though she has failed many times in the past. He says they rarely speak. He expected opposition from her in his desire for Lord Warburton to marry Pansy, but the two agree in the matter. However, Isabel worries Pansy may not easily give up her love for Rosier; Osmond is confident Pansy will act as he wishes. Isabel says that Lord Warburton has told her of his admiration for Pansy, and Osmond is surprised his wife hasn't told him this earlier. He says he knows Isabel can influence Lord Warburton to propose to Pansy, and he is counting on her to do so.


In Chapter 40 we see that Isabel Archer regrets her choice to marry Gilbert Osmond. She thinks it was a mistake, a "folly" that she has no choice now but to accept. Isabel views marriage as a commitment that must "last forever," and she believes it was her choice, and hers alone, that put her where she is. However unhappy she may be, it seems at this point Isabel gives no thought to any alternative to doing her duty as Osmond's wife.

In Chapter 40 Isabel gets a hint there is something going on between Osmond and Madame Merle. When she happens upon the two, she gets "an impression." It strikes her that her husband is seated while Madame Merle stands. This is odd because at that time it was considered rude for a gentleman to sit while a lady stood. The way they were looking at each other without speaking suggested an intimacy between the two. When they realize Isabel is there, Osmond suggests by leaving immediately that he has been caught doing something illicit or that he feels uncomfortable. Isabel doesn't put a name to her impression, and readers aren't sure, along with her, of the meaning of the moment she witnesses between her husband and Madame Merle.

Osmond and Isabel clearly have an unhappy, distant marriage, as readers witness in the interaction between the two in Chapter 41. They are estranged; seldom even speaking to each other. She is very aware her actions have displeased him many times before, and he expects her to oppose him. Readers may be puzzled as to why Isabel wishes to please Osmond if she thinks their marriage was her biggest mistake, as she seems to intimate in Chapter 40. Even when he insults her by insinuating she should use Lord Warburton's past feelings for her to manipulate him to propose to Pansy Osmond, Isabel doesn't defend herself. She wants to be "a good wife" and act as Osmond wants her to act. Readers may conclude Osmond has just as much control over Isabel as over his daughter, or that he has broken Isabel's spirit over the three years of their marriage. Perhaps, however, it is Isabel's sense of duty to follow through with her commitment, which motivates her submission.

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