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The Portrait of a Lady

Henry James

Chapters 28–31

Chapters 25–27

Chapters 32–36


Lord Warburton still loves Isabel, and Isabel is just as obviously taken with Gilbert Osmond. It hurts Warburton to see them together; one night at the opera, he hurries away after seeing them seated next to one another. On his way out, he sees Ralph, who also seems miserable. The next day, Warburton tells Isabel that he is leaving Rome, because he is unable to stand being near Isabel in these circumstances. Isabel does not know whether to turn him away coldly or to treat him with kindness. She tells Osmond that she likes Lord Warburton but has no real interest in him. Osmond, who longs to be an aristocrat, thinks smugly to himself that it will be a feather in his cap to win a woman who turned down an English nobleman.

During his time in Rome, Osmond is so charming that almost everyone in Isabel's life is taken in by him. Osmond is thrilled with his success; he likes everything about Isabel, except that she is too eager to praise things and to enjoy things in which he sees flaws. Isabel prepares to leave on a trip to Bellaggio with Mrs. Touchett and wonders to herself whether she will ever see Gilbert Osmond again. Before she leaves, Osmond tells her that he loves her. Isabel is overcome with emotion, but she is also confused, and she asks him not to say such things to her; she says that she does not know him. Osmond says that he does not want anything from her, as he has nothing to offer her; he merely wants to enjoy the feeling of being in love with her. He tells her that he is glad she is going on the trip with her aunt, as it is the perfectly conventional thing to do. And he asks her to look in on Pansy on her way.

Alone, Isabel ponders this new development. She has been fantasizing about being in love with Osmond, but now that he has confessed his love, she feels strangely oppressed. She feels as though there is a space inside her that she is unable to cross, but that if she could cross it, she could return Gilbert's love.

Ralph escorts Isabel back to Florence, where she pays the promised visit to Pansy. She finds the pretty girl practicing the piano. She is amazed at how natural and simple Pansy seems, despite the extraordinary regimen of her education and upbringing. Pansy seems to live to please her father; she repeats to Isabel all the instructions he has given her about how to spend her time, and Isabel agrees that Pansy must do all she can to please him and obey him. Pansy concurs, noting that her father is inwardly a sad man. Isabel longs to ask Pansy what she means, but Isabel feels that it would be unfair of her. When Isabel kisses Pansy good-bye, she feels a strange pang of envy about the girl; she longs again to ask Pansy for insight into Osmond's character.

A year passes, during which Isabel spends five months vacationing with Lily, her sister, and Lily's family, and she chooses not to tell her sister about all the romantic developments in her life, such as Warburton's proposal. She thinks of Osmond almost constantly but feels that to tell Lily about him would drain the romance from her situation. Lily, for her part, finds Isabel vaguely disappointing; she had expected that Isabel would be a popular socialite, but instead she seems to be her same old introverted self. When Lily leaves to return to America, Isabel feels a powerful sense of relief. She hurries back to Rome to take a trip through the east with Madame Merle. Watching events from afar, Mrs. Touchett is pleased that Isabel has not returned to Florence to be with Gilbert Osmond.

After a three-month journey—Isabel pays Madame Merle's way across Greece and Turkey—Isabel feels as though she has learned a great deal about Madame Merle. She was married to a Frenchman who treated her cruelly, and Isabel notices a slight cruel streak in Madame Merle as well; she sometimes even finds her ominous or depressing. But she admires Merle for retaining her interest in life despite her unpleasant experience with her husband.

At last they return to Rome. Gilbert Osmond hurries there from Florence and begins to lavish attention on Isabel, but in the spring, Isabel travels to Florence. Ralph is on his way to visit his mother, and Isabel has not seen him for nearly a year. She looks forward eagerly to his arrival.


With this section, James begins Volume II of Portrait of a Lady. By the time Warburton sees Isabel and Osmond together at the opera, Osmond's seduction of Isabel is nearly complete. Though Madame Merle is the primary agent enabling Isabel to fall in love with Osmond, Osmond is also forced to play his role, and he does so perfectly. Where Isabel's past suitors have always left her with a feeling of panic and fear—Caspar Goodwood seems to inhibit her independence, while Warburton's life seemed like a "gilded cage" to Isabel—Osmond only leaves her with a slight feeling of oppression, one that she wants desperately to learn how to overcome.

As befits the thematic exploration of Portrait of a Lady, Isabel's primary romantic hangup has been her desire to protect her independence from the social constraints of a marriage. Both Goodwood and Warburton have wanted something very specific from her—marriage—which has left her terrified. But Osmond cleverly declares his love to Isabel without proposing to her. He tells her that he does not want anything from her; he simply wants to tell her how he feels to relieve the pressure of keeping his passion a secret. By presenting his love for Isabel in such a way as to leave her freedom unthreatened, Osmond circumvents Isabel's usual defensive reaction against any man attempting to win her heart.

Though she feels slightly troubled after their conversation, and though she cannot immediately fathom giving herself to Osmond, Isabel does begin to conceive of that as an end goal, thinking that if only she could cross the difficult country before her, she could love him. Isabel has been defined by her love of independence throughout the novel; this section marks the turning point when she begins to imagine sacrificing her independence for the sake of love.

Interestingly, Ralph is one of Isabel's staunchest defenders during her courtship with Osmond, during which every other character worries that Isabel will fall in love with him. Ralph always insists that Isabel is too intelligent to be taken in by Osmond's arrogance and narcissistic charm. Though he is always right when judging other characters, the great love Ralph feels for Isabel gives him something of a blind spot with regard to her; he simply has too much faith in her at this stage of the book.

Ralph's great hope is for Isabel to remain independent, and he believes that that is her primary goal as well. But Ralph has overlooked Isabel's latent romantic streak, which has been apparent to the reader throughout the novel—she tends to imagine her life as though it is a story, and she loves to imbue the people and places around her with the qualities of a novel or a play. As a result of this overactive imagination, she is able to construct a façade of Osmond in her own mind that she comes to believe in, essentially ignoring Osmond's real character. Ralph thinks too highly of Isabel to imagine her indulging such naïveté, and as a result he commits one of his only significant lapses in judgment in the novel, refusing to speak to Isabel about his suspicions of Osmond and Madame Merle.

When Isabel was being courted by Lord Warburton, we saw that she was attracted to the life of his sisters, even though it seemed to contradict everything she claimed to want. The Misses Molyneux were docile, thoughtless, and passive, where Isabel wanted to be independent, intelligent, and active, and yet she admired them and even envied them. Here, she has exactly the same response to Pansy, Gilbert Osmond's stifled daughter.

Because she thinks the best of Osmond, she is unable to see what is extremely apparent to the reader: that Osmond has monstrously limited his daughter's education, squelched her independence, and essentially imprisoned her in a convent for many years solely to make her the person he wanted her to be—someone who was slavishly loyal to him and whose first thought was to his comfort and happiness. Pansy is a sweet-natured, passive, and tragic figure who is barely able to conceive of life outside her father's opinions and desires. But Isabel is drawn to Pansy, and though she will later come to pity and protect her, in this section she is basically attracted to the security and apparent normalcy of her life. Again, we see that Isabel's scattered upbringing, her patchy relationship with her own father, and her haphazard education, while they may have contributed to her desire for independence, also left her with a repressed inner yearning for the kind of security and comfort she sees in the lives of Pansy and the Misses Molyneux.

After Osmond declares his love for Isabel, the narrative begins to break up slightly, skipping over sections of the plot and jumping ahead through short intervals in time. Because Isabel's relationship with Osmond seems to cause a kind of disintegration in her own life, this narrative disintegration is appropriate to its subject matter. It also finds James beginning to employ the elliptical method he demonstrated in Isabel's first conversation with Caspar Goodwood, skipping over certain events and periods of development in Isabel's life.

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