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The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Chapters 50–51 | Summary



Chapter 50

Countess Gemini, Pansy Osmond, and Isabel Archer visit the Colosseum. Sitting alone, Isabel sees Edward Rosier, who approaches her. He tells her he has sold his entire collection of trinkets. He hopes the money he has made will qualify him as a suitor for Pansy. Isabel takes Pansy to sit in the carriage without speaking to Rosier, who introduces himself to the countess. Gilbert Osmond suddenly decides to send Pansy back to the convent as a retreat from the world. Isabel believes this is a demonstration of his power and unpredictability, designed to inspire fear.

Chapter 51

Isabel receives a telegram from Mrs. Touchett telling her Ralph Touchett has only a couple of days to live and asking for her to come. Osmond doesn't believe Ralph is in danger and forbids Isabel to go to England. She says she will go and that Osmond is displeased with her anyway, whether she goes or stays. Still, she feels the need to justify herself.

Isabel tells the countess Osmond has forbidden her to visit her dying cousin. The countess reveals that Osmond's first wife didn't have any children and that Pansy was born after her death. Osmond had fabricated the story of his first wife dying in childbirth to cover up the fact that she was actually the daughter of another married woman with whom he had an affair for several years. Isabel deduces that woman was Madame Merle, and she feels sorry for her as she had to give up her child to save her reputation. The countess says Madame Merle manipulated Isabel into marrying Osmond so Pansy would have enough money.


The author creates the climax of the novel in Chapter 51 at Countess Gemini's revelation that Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond had an affair, which produced Pansy, and that it is for Pansy Osmond's provision that Madame Merle wanted Isabel Archer's money secured through her marriage to Osmond. After 50 chapters of confusion, guessing, and hints, readers, along with Isabel, finally know what was really behind Isabel's marriage. She has been manipulated by Madame Merle. Isabel seems sympathetic with Madame Merle, however. Osmond, who doesn't seem to really care for anyone but himself, remains the real villain of the story.

In Chapter 50 readers see again that Osmond has the power to take away the things people most treasure. In an effort to change Osmond's mind about his suitability as a husband to Pansy, Edward Rosier sells his collection of artifacts. The profits make him considerably richer, but readers know the sacrifice will be for nothing—except perhaps for Osmond's perverse pleasure when he learns he is behind the suffering of someone he despises. This evil ability is a skill readers have seen in larger matters, depriving people of intangible valuables. Readers will recall how he took away Isabel's freedom and Pansy's lover. He has taken away Pansy's freedom now, too, sending her to the convent to give her time to think and prevent her from seeing Rosier.

In Chapter 51 a telegram again serves to signal a plot shift. Mrs. Touchett's telegram to Isabel about Ralph Touchett's deteriorating health causes a showdown between Isabel and Osmond when he gives her an ultimatum not to go to England. Because of the telegram, Isabel must choose between her loyalty to her marriage, and her loyalty to Ralph and her own feelings.

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