The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Chapters 48–49 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 48

Ralph Touchett decides to return to England so he can die at home, and Henrietta Stackpole offers to accompany him and take care of him. Caspar Goodwood will go with them as Isabel has asked. Henrietta tells Countess Gemini that the rumors about Isabel and Lord Warburton are not true, but the countess isn't convinced. Henrietta again urges Isabel to leave Gilbert Osmond, hoping it is not too late to save Isabel Archer's character from his influence. Isabel says goodbye to Ralph, promising to come if he asks for her, no matter if it displeases Osmond. Caspar visits the Osmond home on his last evening in Rome, and Osmond talks about how happy his marriage is. Caspar gets Isabel alone to tell Isabel he still loves her. She admits she is unhappy.

Chapter 49

Madame Merle accuses Isabel of ruining the planned match between Pansy Osmond and Lord Warburton. She thinks Isabel could still fix things, ordering her angrily to "let us have him!" Isabel is shocked and confused, asking, "Who are you ... what do you have to do with me?" Madame Merle answers, "Everything." With these words, Isabel realizes that Mrs. Touchett has been right about Madame Merle. Isabel understands that the woman she thought was her friend had orchestrated her marriage to Osmond, that she is deeply wicked.

Madame Merle tells Osmond of her interaction with Isabel, and Madame Merle hates herself for being so horrible to Isabel. She says Osmond has made her this way. It is a desire to do him a service that motivates her, but she wishes she could cry over what she has done. She is changed; so cold that she can't even weep. Osmond denies any responsibility for either her or Isabel's pain. She asks herself if all she has done—making herself "so vile"—has been in vain.

Analysis

In Chapter 48 Caspar Goodwood gets what he came to find: confirmation of Isabel Archer's unhappiness. He wanted to see for himself how her life turned out, and she finally admits she is miserable. It is not out of a sense of sick satisfaction or vindication that he wants the information; Caspar wants to know how she is because he still loves her.

In Chapter 49 the author builds the novel toward its climax. Tension is at almost its breaking point when Isabel realizes Madame Merle has played the part of a deceiving villain in her marriage. In the melodramatic scene between the two women, Isabel is so shocked and overcome at the realization, she doesn't know who Madame Merle really is. She asks what Madame Merle has to do with her. The answer, "Everything," says it all. Isabel finally sees what she has denied for so long, that Madame Merle has been controlling her like a puppet and that there is something going on between Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle. The climax is yet to come, however, as readers still don't know why Madame Merle has helped Osmond or exactly what the nature of their relationship is.

In both chapters Henry James explores the idea that Osmond has the power to spoil people's characters. These chapters reveal another layer to Osmond's villainy. Not only is he wicked to the core, he corrupts others. Henrietta Stackpole thinks he is a danger to Isabel for that very reason in Chapter 48. She urges Isabel to leave Osmond before he changes her even more. Readers know that Isabel has already done something she didn't want to do, something she found repulsive, by pushing Pansy Osmond toward Lord Warburton out of a desire to please Osmond. In Chapter 49 Madame Merle says she's been "vile" to Isabel out of a wish to do something for Osmond. She says she used to be different but he has changed her so much she can't even cry over her treachery.

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