Skip over navigation

The Portrait of a Lady

Henry James

Chapters 37–40

Chapters 32–36

Chapters 41–44


Rosier wanders through the Osmonds' palazzo, searching for Pansy. He encounters Gilbert Osmond, who insultingly refuses to shake his hand, instead offering him only two fingers to grasp. They discuss Osmond's art collection, and when Rosier asks whether he would like to sell anything, Osmond replies that there is nothing he wishes to match. The subtle implication, Rosier realizes, is that Madame Merle has revealed to Osmond Rosier's desire to marry Pansy, and Osmond has no intention of allowing the marriage to take place. Hastily excusing himself, Rosier encounters Isabel, who asks him to speak to a young woman who has shyly kept to herself throughout the party. Rosier asks Isabel why Osmond does not speak to her, and she replies that her husband does not do her such favors. Rosier finds the young woman and discovers that Pansy is with her. Moved by Pansy's beauty and by her innocence, he asks her to show him something in another room. Here, he confesses to Pansy that he has come to the party solely because she is there. She replies somewhat passively that she likes him as well.

Elsewhere in the palazzo, Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond discuss the problem of Rosier: Osmond says that he is tired of Rosier, but Madame Merle advises him to keep Rosier around, as he might find a use for him. Merle says that Pansy has been thinking about Rosier, but Gilbert insists that he has no interest in what Pansy thinks, only what Pansy does. Rosier and Pansy enter the room; Merle says to Osmond that Rosier is coming to declare his feelings for Pansy. Osmond glares at Pansy and then strides away. Merle tells Rosier to pay her a visit the following afternoon. Rosier finds Isabel, who admits to him that Osmond thinks he is not wealthy enough to marry Pansy. She says that there is nothing she can do to change her husband's mind.

The next day, Madame Merle advises Rosier that if he has any desire to marry Pansy, he must stay away from her except at Mrs. Osmond's weekly gatherings on Thursday nights. Rosier agrees. The next Thursday, Gilbert Osmond tells him that he is glad to see that Rosier has been staying away from his daughter, who will never marry him. Lord Warburton approaches and greets Osmond, and Rosier excuses himself to speak to Isabel. She assures him that Pansy still hopes to marry him, despite Osmond's claims. As Rosier leaves to find Pansy, Warburton approaches Isabel and says that she seems changed. He tells her that Ralph Touchett is very ill and that he has planned to spend the winter in Sicily against the advice of his doctors. Alarmed, Isabel agrees to see Ralph the next morning. Isabel offers to introduce Warburton to her guests, but he says that he has come only to speak to her. When he notices Pansy, however, he says that he would like to meet her. He mentions to Isabel that he is interested in finding a wife.

Pansy is deep in conversation with Rosier, telling him not to listen to her father—she has not lost interest in him. She says that she plans to turn to her stepmother for help. Rosier tells her that Isabel will be useless, because she is obviously afraid of her husband. Pansy replies that Isabel is not afraid.

Ralph thinks about the recent past in his friendship with Isabel. He has scarcely seen her since her marriage and feels that he alienated her by telling her how he felt about her engagement. Isabel has distanced herself from all her old friends, including Henrietta, whom Osmond despises, and Mrs. Touchett, whose friendship with Madame Merle has been destroyed by Merle's deceitful role in helping Osmond win Isabel. Ralph is disgusted by Osmond, whose entire life seems to him nothing more than a pose—he pretends to be above the world, but what he really wants is for the world to notice that he is above it. Now Ralph worries that Osmond has transformed Isabel into a mere acquisition, a piece of his collection designed to make the right impression on the world.

After the last time he saw Isabel, Ralph worried that Osmond would disapprove of their friendship, so he left Rome; now, he has decided to stay in Rome instead of going to Sicily, to be near Isabel and to help her if he can. He is also keenly interested to see how she will handle life with her husband—especially now that a new complication has entered her life, the arrival of Lord Warburton and his obvious interest in marrying Pansy. Warburton has even confessed his intentions to Ralph, though he denies that, as Ralph suggests, he only wants to marry Pansy to make himself a part of Isabel's life.

In the time since her marriage to Osmond, Isabel has lost her fascination with Madame Merle; she has even recognized part of Merle's role in arranging her marriage with Osmond, though she believes that she herself must finally bear the responsibility for it. Merle even warns Isabel not to become jealous of her relationship with Osmond, a remark that perplexes Isabel. One day, however, Isabel returns from a walk with Pansy to find Osmond and Merle alone in the drawing room, gazing silently into one another's eyes; Merle is standing, and Osmond is sitting.

Watching them in this pose gives Isabel a shock of insight, and she realizes that their relationship is far more intimate than they pretend. Osmond hastily excuses himself, while Merle stays behind to talk to Isabel about Rosier. She says that she is tired of dealing with him and that she does not want him to marry Pansy. Isabel coldly refuses to intervene and refuses again when Merle tries to convince her to have Warburton speak to Pansy. Isabel says only that she would be glad if Lord Warburton married Pansy and asks Madame Merle to be gentle with Rosier if she decides to snub him.


A great deal of this section is devoted to the exploration of subtle social maneuvering in the parlors and drawing rooms of upper-class parties. This is a subtle, sophisticated world in which seemingly insignificant glances, gestures, and comments can take on a world of significance—when Rosier speaks to Osmond in Chapter 37, for instance, Osmond first snubs him by shaking his hand with only two fingers. This may seem like a minor insult, but it is such a departure from the elaborate rules of courtesy that govern these characters lives that it continues to infuriate Ralph when he thinks of much later in the chapter.

Additionally, when Rosier, who is also an art collector, asks Osmond if he would be interested in selling anything, Osmond replies that he has nothing he wishes to match—this is a highly coded way of telling Rosier that he knows about his desire to marry Pansy and that he intends to oppose the romance. Though the reader may miss the exchange altogether, Rosier understands it immediately and realizes that he is in for a struggle if he hopes to marry Pansy.

Though we are still kept relatively distant from Isabel at this point, and though much of the action is relatively insignificant to the main plotline, this section does serve an important purpose in that it brings us more fully into the world in which Isabel now finds herself. In America, communication is frank and expressive, represented by the to-the-point statements of Caspar Goodwood and by Henrietta's unselfconscious way of saying whatever crosses her mind. In England, communication is frank and often jovial, governed by a mixture of forthrightness and manners—Mrs. Touchett, Isabel, and Ralph can all tell each other what they think without speaking in code, though they are not so blunt as Henrietta.

Now Isabel is deep in continental Europe, a decadent world in which social proprieties are rigidly enforced, even if they are often used to pervert or circumvent the moral proprieties that seem natural to Isabel and the Touchetts. In this world, Osmond cannot simply tell Rosier that he does not want him to marry Pansy; instead he must express his opposition in a kind of sinister hieroglyphic. James emphasizes the insincerity of these exchanges in order to give Isabel's new environment a very dark and ominous undertone—looking back on the early chapters, places such as Gardencourt seem extremely bright and uncomplicated compared to the vicious and hypocritical world of the expatriate society in Rome.

This section also finds some of Isabel's old friends returning to her side—Lord Warburton appears, as does Ralph, who is still motivated by his love of Isabel even though their relationship has grown distant. The appearance of Lord Warburton, though its significance is not commented upon in these chapters, foreshadows a troubling new development. Warburton, as we saw in his last trip to Rome, seems still to love Isabel, but he tells her that he is looking for a wife. He also asks to meet Pansy, who is the only person at the party besides Isabel in whom he is interested. Further, we know that Osmond is deeply interested in the English nobility—he thought once that since his life thwarted him by not making him a lord, he would have the satisfaction of knowing that his wife had once rejected a lord. And we know that Pansy is of marrying age.

The entanglement, then, seems clear: Pansy wishes to marry Rosier, but her father forbids it; Warburton will seek to marry Pansy solely to move closer to Isabel, and Osmond will support the marriage. Isabel will be forced to choose between Pansy's wishes and her marital duty to Osmond, which she takes very seriously even though he makes her miserable. This will become the most direct conflict in the book between Isabel's inner desire and her commitment to social propriety.

Complicating everything is the mystery that resurfaces in Chapter 40, which is the question of the exact nature of the relationship between Osmond and Merle. It should be clear by now to the reader that they either are lovers or have been lovers; Isabel has not yet arrived at that conclusion, but she does realizes that their relationship is more intimate and more complicated than she had previously assumed.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us