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The Portrait of a Lady

Henry James

Chapters 41–44

Chapters 37–40

Chapters 45–48


Isabel sits in the drawing room listening to Pansy and Lord Warburton converse; she is pleased by the way Warburton treats her stepdaughter, noting that he speaks to her as an equal. She wonders briefly what Pansy will think about her father and Madame Merle's dismissal of Rosier, but she decides that Pansy is so passive that she will probably not be terribly hurt by it. After Pansy and Warburton leave, Osmond enters and asks Isabel about Warburton's visit and his intentions toward Pansy.

Their conversation is strained; though Isabel is honestly trying to be a dutiful wife, he is angry that she failed to tell him about Warburton's interest in his daughter. Isabel insists that because their relationship is distant, she has not had an opportunity to tell him. He acknowledges that he wishes to see Pansy married to this powerful English lord and tells Isabel that he will expect her help in bringing the marriage about. He says that because she rejected Warburton when he loved her, she will now be able to influence his feelings.

Left alone, Isabel thinks about her relationship with Osmond. She wants to be a good wife and had planned to help him effect the match between Pansy and Warburton—but as soon as he pressed her to do so, she felt disgusted by the entire proposition. She is miserable in her marriage, though she was full of confidence at the outset. After a year with him, Isabel realized that Osmond despised her, and she understood that because she had tried during their courtship to seem exactly the way he wanted her to be, he believed that she would become that ideal person in their marriage. She realizes further that it was her imagination that enabled her to love Osmond, because it constructed such a powerful, romantic illusion of him that she was able to believe. She realizes that Osmond's life is defined by his arrogant notion of himself as a superior gentleman and his deep desire to have the world acknowledge him as such; where she thought that their life together would be one of intellect and liberty, he intended it to be one of social conventions and poses.

She realizes that her husband is ashamed of the fact that she has her own mind and that she disagrees with many of his ideas—for instance, his assertion that all women are dishonest and unfaithful to their husbands. Osmond wanted to own her like an object in his collection, and he is irritated and threatened by the fact that his acquisition has her own ideas and her own way of looking at life. Isabel suffers greatly when she thinks about her marriage. She is also sad to think about Ralph, who is growing weaker and sicker, and whose goodness Isabel only now appreciates fully. At four o'clock in the morning, Isabel rises and readies herself for bed; she is suddenly struck by a memory of that she saw earlier that day: Osmond and Merle, gazing silently into one another's eyes.

Isabel escorts Pansy to a ball, where she acts as her stepdaughter's chaperone. As she holds Pansy's flowers and watches her dance, Rosier approaches her, looking sorrowful, and asks to take one of Pansy's flowers. Isabel allows him to take a flower, but as Pansy leaves the dance floor to approach them, Isabel asks Rosier to leave; Osmond has forbidden Pansy to dance with him. Warburton arrives and stays to talk to Isabel when Pansy rejoins the dance. Isabel is surprised that Warburton has not asked Pansy to dance the cotillion, a very long and intimate dance but instead has asked for the quadrille, a dance that involves a large group. Warburton says that he hopes to talk to Isabel during the cotillion.

Isabel realizes that Warburton is still in love with her and is pursuing Pansy only to be closer to her. When Warburton sees Rosier looking dejected, Isabel tells him that the man is his rival for Pansy's affections and that he is in love with her. Looking guilty, Warburton acknowledges that he is not in love with Pansy and tells Isabel that he can no longer pretend; he goes to write a note to Osmond. Isabel finds Rosier and promises that she will try to help him. As the ball ends, she finds Warburton and tells him to send the note to Osmond.

Henrietta visits the Countess Gemini in Florence and tells her that she is worried that Isabel is unhappy and that she is going to Rome. The Countess is also going to Rome to visit her brother and surprises Henrietta by telling her that Lord Warburton is also in Rome and apparently still in love with Isabel. Henrietta then goes to speak to Caspar Goodwood, whom she encourages to come to Rome as well, for Isabel's sake. With difficulty, Goodwood agrees. He would prefer to travel alone, but when Henrietta tells him that she is leaving the next day, courtesy compels him to offer to escort her. Henrietta agrees, and they set out to see what they can do for Isabel.


After having been suspended for four years and a great many chapters, Isabel's perspective finally makes a complete return in Chapter 41. In Chapters 41 and forty-two, as Isabel talks to Osmond about Warburton's interest in Pansy and then thinks deeply about her strained relationship with Osmond, we finally see Isabel's painful marriage through her own eyes. Essentially, Isabel has realized what Ralph, Henrietta, and the reader realized from the beginning, that Osmond would force her to conform to social convention at the expense of her independent spirit; she has at last seen through the romantic façade of Osmond that she created for herself and realized that his life is defined by social posing, a desire for other people to confirm his high opinion of himself and a desire to extract servitude and pleasure from everyone he can with no regard for their feelings.

Despite this realization, Isabel remains committed to her marriage and to the idea of being a good and dutiful wife. This may be hard for many readers to understand; having already seen the positive example of Mrs. Touchett, readers may be inclined to think that Isabel should just leave Osmond and live happily. There are essentially three reasons why the circumstance is not so simple.

First, despite the example of Mrs. Touchett, the idea and ideal of marriage in 1873 was far more rigid and powerful than it is today; divorce was looked upon as a scandalous disgrace, and marriage vows were treated as sacred oaths to be taken literally. Isabel entered into her marriage with this understanding of it; she did not consider, as most people do today, that if her marriage went poorly, she would end it. Second, Isabel has always prided herself on her moral strength—remember that earlier in the novel, she wished that she would encounter hardship in her life, so that she could prove to herself that she could overcome suffering without losing her moral identity. Now she has found hardship, and her pride insists that she confront it and not shrink from it. To leave Osmond would represent a kind of moral capitulation to Isabel, and she cannot imagine making such an admission of defeat. Thirdly, Isabel legitimately loves and pities Pansy and considers it her duty to remain with the Osmonds to try to help Pansy in whatever way she can.

The difficulty of her current entanglement, then, is that her desire to help Pansy is directly at odds with her commitment to become a dutiful wife for Osmond, no matter how much she hates him. In a sense, Isabel's moral identity has fractured into two competing sides. One side says that Warburton wants to marry Pansy for the wrong reasons and that Pansy and Rosier love each other; therefore, Isabel should discourage Warburton and help Pansy and Rosier. The other side says that her duty is to do whatever her husband desires, and therefore she should help Osmond marry Pansy to Warburton, regardless of Pansy's feelings and Warburton's motives.

Marriage is a social contract, and this conflict represents a severe recurrence of the struggle within Isabel between individual desire and social convention: Isabel's personal conscience tells her to help Pansy, but her social conscience tells her to help her husband. As a result, we see Isabel oscillate throughout this section, first promising Osmond that she will help him and then discouraging Warburton and promising Rosier that she will help him. At the end of this section, Isabel seems to be acting based on her personal feelings at the expense of her perceived social duty; whether this state of affairs will hold, however, remains to be seen.

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