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The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Chapters 52–53 | Summary



Chapter 52

Isabel Archer goes to see Pansy Osmond at the convent. Madame Merle is there; she has been visiting Pansy. Madame realizes Isabel knows her secret. Isabel tells Madame Merle she is leaving for England that evening. Isabel goes to Pansy's room and tells her she is taking a trip to England. Pansy wishes she could leave the convent, and she asks Isabel not to leave her. Isabel suggests Pansy come with her to England, but Pansy will not defy her father, which Isabel agrees is right. Pansy begs Isabel to come back to her later. Isabel promises not to desert her stepdaughter. As Isabel leaves the convent, Madame Merle tells Isabel that Ralph Touchett was the one behind Isabel's fortune and thus her marriage. Isabel tells Madame Merle she hopes to never see her again; Madame Merle states she is going to America.

Chapter 53

On her journey, Isabel reflects on her life and wonders if she is too valuable to "live only to suffer." Henrietta Stackpole and Mr. Bantling meet Isabel when she arrives in London. Isabel tells Henrietta she isn't sure why she promised Pansy to return to Italy. If she returns, she knows Gilbert Osmond will make the rest of her life miserable.

Henrietta is engaged to Mr. Bantling. The two have been traveling together, and Henrietta has decided to make England her home. She says she knows everything about him, and he, her. His sister, Lady Pensil, who finally invited Henrietta to her home, doesn't know what to make of her brother's choice. Mr. Bantling, Henrietta, and Isabel meet the next morning at the train station to travel to Gardencourt.


In Chapter 52 readers learn that Isabel Archer has evidently made the decision to defy her husband. She will go to England. Before she goes, she must see Pansy Osmond to tell her she is leaving. Although she has decided to flout Gilbert Osmond's wishes by leaving, and although she offers Pansy a way out of the convent, Isabel ultimately affirms the girl's commitment to obey her father by remaining at the convent where no one but he believes she should be. It seems uncertain if Isabel will ever return until Pansy begs her to promise to come back. Isabel gives her word to return.

Isabel begins to question her resolve to stay married in Chapter 53. As she thinks back over her life and marriage, Isabel considers returning to Osmond to live the rest of her life merely "to suffer," and wonders if such a choice means she believes she is of so little value as to deserve such a fate. These thoughts are quite different from her ideas of her marriage earlier in the novel, in which she blames herself alone for her position and thinks of her duty first. The difference is, now she knows she didn't make the choice as freely as she thought she had. Now she knows she was manipulated by Madame Merle and Osmond. The realization frees her to consider the possibility of leaving Osmond; however, there is still the matter of her promise to Pansy. She seems resolved to return for that fact alone.

Henry James offers a contrast in Chapter 53 between Henrietta Stackpole and Mr. Bantling's relationship and that of Isabel Archer and Gilbert Osmond in earlier chapters. Henrietta and Mr. Bantling have known each other for years and know each other thoroughly. Readers recall how much Mr. Bantling respects Henrietta's career, independence, and opinions, as the two frequently differ but still get along. The two wish to marry for companionship and love. In contrast, readers have seen plenty of evidence that Isabel and Osmond's relationship was formed after a short acquaintance, and that Osmond disregards Isabel's opinions and strips her of her independence. Although Isabel married for love, Osmond married for gain.

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