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The Portrait of a Lady

Henry James

Chapters 20–24

Summary Chapters 20–24

Not long after this conversation, Merle takes Isabel to visit Gilbert Osmond's house; looking at the imposing villa from the outside, Isabel has the impression that once you were inside, it would be very difficult to get out. Inside, she meets the Countess Gemini, Osmond's annoying sister; she talks incessantly, and eventually Osmond draws Isabel aside while Merle keeps the Countess entertained. He tells Isabel that his sister is unhappily married and that she covers up her pain by acting foolish.

As Osmond describes his life—he says that he has sacrificed everything but his devotion to art and good taste—Isabel is again impressed with his refinement and his obvious taste. In fact, as he shows her his paintings, she works very hard to say the right things about them; like no one she has ever met, he makes her feel a need to measure up. He tells her that, though he has lived a life of renunciation, he will soon need to find a source of income, because he must provide for his daughter.


This section initiates a new phase of the novel, which centers on Isabel's wealth and Merle's scheme to marry her to Gilbert Osmond. This scheme becomes more and more obvious to the reader throughout this section, just as it remains entirely opaque to Isabel, who believes that Merle is her friend and that Osmond is the wonderful and brilliant man Merle says he is. To virtually every other character in the book, Osmond is unremarkable, pretentious, and selfish; Ralph dislikes him very strongly. But Merle presents Osmond to Isabel as one of the finest gentlemen in Europe, who has cast off the bonds of society and chosen to live for his art. Because Osmond also seems cleverer than Isabel, her romantic side is deeply drawn to him.

James uses a number of literary techniques to make certain that the reader will find Osmond and Merle increasingly sinister throughout these chapters. One technique is a character's unconscious exclamation: in Chapter 20, for instance, when Merle learns that Isabel has inherited her fortune, she unintentionally blurts out that Isabel is "clever." She immediately covers up her mistake, but this exclamation indicates to the reader that Merle assumes that Isabel has manipulated her way into inheriting Mr. Touchett's wealth—hardly a flattering thing to think about someone who is supposed to be your close friend. This seems to indicate that Merle considers manipulation the most likely path to wealth and also that she herself is capable of such manipulation. It follows that she will attempt to manipulate Isabel into gaining access to her newfound wealth.

Another literary technique James uses to make Osmond seem unsavory is to make his surroundings seem ominous: Isabel finds Osmond extremely attractive, but she is unsettled by the sight of his house, which seems prison-like to her, as though, once in, it would require a force of will for a person to get out. (Prison imagery is associated with Osmond throughout Portrait of a Lady, especially as regards his treatment of Pansy.) Throughout the novel, James implies a strong correlation between a person's character and the environment of their home: Gardencourt is a loving, beautiful place, and is a symbol of the Touchetts, while Isabel's ramshackle home in Albany perfectly matches her disorganized upbringing and education. Because Isabel finds Osmond's home ominous, the reader finds Osmond himself ominous.

The Portrait of a Lady is a very sedate novel in terms of action: narrative developments occur slowly, and when they do occur, they are rarely exciting in the conventional sense. The novel is given the pace of the upper- class drawing rooms it portrays, and as a result, it is lacking in visceral excitement. One of the ways in which James sustains the reader's interest as his slow-paced story develops is to propose questions and mysteries and then to delay the answers for a great many chapters. Will Isabel marry? What will she do with her independence? Characters are often introduced and then dismissed, and we are left wondering: what will become of Lord Warburton? Of Caspar Goodwood? Of Henrietta? In this way, James keeps the reader reading, even when his plot seems to lack some of the other elements that normally draw people into a work of fiction.

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