The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady Summary and Analysis of Chapters 24-26

Chapter 24

Isabel has the opportunity to visit Gilbert Osmond in his own home. Isabel meets Gilbert Osmond's sister, Countess Gemini and his daughter, Pansy there. She notes that Countess Gemini has features like that of a tropical bird and that she has a "great deal of manner" (222). The Countess informs her that she has visited Gilbert in order to see Isabel, rather than to see her own brother.

Mr. Osmond notes of his possessions that, "I've a few good things… indeed I've nothing very bad. But I've not what I should have liked" (223). He seems to hint that "nothing but the right 'values' was of any consequence." Isabel notes that being simple is not the way of this particular family. She also realizes that the occasion "signified more than lay on the surface" (223) and she feels ill equipped to understand what it is. She also feels like she ought to offer some sort of entertainment, but is too timid to do so.

Mr. Osmond does much of the talking instead. Madame Merle and Countess Gemini seem to know each other quite well. Mr. Osmond speaks of living in Florence (where his home is located), in such a secluded house. He believes that he might have been a better man had he not lived in Florence, but that he declares that Florence is a place where one could get impressions unlike anywhere else. He admits himself to being "rusty as key" (225), as he has ceased to form attachments and social relations.

Countess Gemini and Madame Merle go off into the garden, leaving Osmond and Isabel alone with Pansy for a few minutes. Osmond asks Isabel what she thinks of his sister, telling her his own opinion of Countess Gemini: he thinks that she is more honest than she seems, that she is unhappy especially with her horrible husband, but she shows this unhappiness comically. He then goes on to tell her about the objects in his salon. The narrator then focuses in on Isabel's thoughts during this scene, rather than describing exactly what is said. Isabel finds Osmond's talk interesting, but she finds him much more so, because he is unlike anyone else she has ever seen. She notes that he does not use any uncommon terms or idioms, but he is simply an original. She sees that he "consulted his taste in everything" (229), just as a sick man consults a lawyer. (This is an odd way of phrasing it, of course - because a sick man should consult a doctor.) She thinks him similar to Ralph, but sees Osmond as more in harmony with his environment. She wonders what Osmond means when he refers to his own provincial mind, his tendency to be reclusive. She notes that he is shy, but realizes that this shyness is a sign of his own good breeding. She takes his question about Countess Gemini to be a sign of his own interest in Isabel herself.

Isabel though finds it tiring to appear as intelligent as she thinks Madame Merle has described her. She carefully tries not to disagree with Osmond. Before they take afternoon tea with the rest of the party, Osmond asks Isabel if she will come back. She says she will, although she wonders if it will deter her from her natural mission if she ends up staying in Florence. Osmond retorts: "A woman's natural mission is to be where she's most appreciated" (231). Madame Merle, hearing this, says that Isabel has a plan to go around the world. Isabel confesses that she changes her plans every day, and she feels frivolous for it. Osmond declares that he himself made a plan many years ago, and continues to live by it: "To resign myself. To be content with little" (231). Isabel wonders if this is really a simple way of living. He thinks it is simple because it is "negative." He admits to having had no prospects, no talents.

Isabel is surprised that he has shared some private information about himself. His own self-description would have been dry, but Isabel's own imagination supplies a "human element" (232) to it. The chapter ends with Gilbert Osmond declaring how his daughter is his great happiness.

Chapter 25

Meanwhile, Madame Merle and Countess Gemini's conversation, occurring at the same time as Isabel and Osmond's conversation, is recounted. Countess Gemini declares that she does not approve of Madame Merle's plan. Madame Merle claims that she has no plan, and that she is not calculating. Countess Gemini declares that she will thwart Merle and Osmond's plan, warning Isabel of her brother's character. Merle warns her that this will simply backfire, and Isabel will dislike Gemini. Merle believes that Isabel has already fallen in love with Osmond, after only two meetings.

Madame Merle has Pansy make some tea, and Pansy is very eager to please. Merle and Gemini continue the discussion. Countess Gemini asks Merle if she thinks Osmond will make Isabel happy, and Merle responds that he would at least behave like a gentleman. Merle informs the countess that Isabel has seventy thousand pounds, and Countess Gemini responds by saying that it is a pity that such a charming girl needs to be sacrificed.

Chapter 26

Gilbert Osmond goes to visit Isabel five times at Palazzo Crescentini, where she and her aunt are staying. Mrs. Touchett notices the anomaly: while Osmond has visited her before, he has never done so quite so often. Ralph enjoys Osmond's company, and he understands Osmond's attraction to Isabel. They both guess at his true motivation. They both though do not believe Isabel would want to marry him. Mrs. Touchett believes she will not marry Osmond because he does not correspond with any conception of success that she has. Ralph believes Isabel will turn him down, because she is "studying human nature" and busy retaining her liberty.

Mrs. Touchett wants to tell Isabel that Osmond will probably propose marriage, and Madame Merle prevents her, claiming that she will speak to Osmond about the matter. Madame Merle tells Mrs. Touchett not to inflame Isabel's imagination. Mrs. Touchett retorts that she never did such a thing in her whole life.

Meanwhile, Isabel has no idea that others are discussing her relationship to Osmond. She merely has a picture in her mind of Osmond -- described as a picture without "flourishes" a low tone, and an atmosphere of summer twilight.

Countess Gemini visits the house as well. She is not well regarded by others, as apparently some of her improprieties have managed to circulate as gossip around town. Madame Merle defends Countess Gemini against Mrs. Touchett's annoyance. Merle explains to Isabel that one need only observe the condition of not believing a single thing Countess Gemini said and then she was quite tolerable. Of course, according to Madame Merle's description of Countess Gemini, she is not well liked by her brother, because Osmond likes women who find the truth sacred.

Mr. Bantling and Henrietta also pay a visit to Isabel. They decide to go to Rome together, as Henrietta Stackpole is now devoting herself to studying the outer aspects of life in Continental Europe. When Isabel informs Osmond of her intentions (to go to Rome), he says he would like to see it with her, although he declines her invitation to do so in a group with others. He claims he cannot leave Pansy.

Madame Merle and Osmond have a conversation at Countess Gemini's, in private. Madame Merle counsels him to go to Rome. Osmond thinks it sounds like a lot of work and Madame Merle responds that he is ungrateful. Osmond says that Isabel is not disagreeable, but she has one fault. "She has too many ideas" (251). He is glad, at the very least, that she has bad ideas, since they will have to be sacrificed.


In Chapter 24, Isabel gets an impression of Osmond's home. Note that she does not see it as so ominous an object as the narrator has previously described the villa. Rather than seeing it as a house with windows that do not allow communication with the world (like the narrator has described it), Isabel's perspective allows the narrator to briefly remark upon the "grave" air of the place, as if one would "need an act of energy to get out" of it once inside (221). The narrator counterbalances this observation with the remark that Isabel is only thinking about "advancing" though, and her thoughts are not nearly so foreboding. In the previous conversation between Madame Merle and Osmond, the setting has offered a reflection of the atmosphere: something sinister is going on between Madame Merle and Osmond, in this very secluded house. In this scene however, the signs are ignored, or poorly read. Notably Isabel herself realizes that she does not know how to read the people and the objects in the house, as the occasion "signified more than lay on the surface" for her (223). In other words, the narrator is setting up a contrast between a more objective interpretation of the house and Isabel's more interested, ambitious reading of the house. She wants to see more than lays beyond the surface, she wants to read into the signs, but she believes it is written in a cryptic language. The narrator's previous description of the house signifies that there is not much more than a superficial shell in this house: that signs do not point to a deeper meaning to be interpreted, but rather everything points to keeping the interpreter mystified through its lack of depth.

This kind of deception is a reference to the larger deception that aesthetic objects play on people. Aesthetics is the analysis of art; it refers to the philosophical question of why we find something beautiful. So, for example, one can look at a beautiful artistic object and believe that there must be some deeper meaning or some higher "value" that is being referred to in it. One might believe it is a moral value, or an intellectual value, to which the various signs in a painting refer. Or, we could apply the same question to a novel: why do we read? What makes a book worthy of being read? Does it make us more moral people when we read? Or do we learn some higher truth about life? We believe that the signs of fiction might point us in a particular direction in life, give us some guidance. However, by treating aesthetics in the context of a novel, James is hinting at the idea that art is all an illusion. There is a trick being played: it looks like all the signs refer to some deeper meaning, but in fact, they are creating the illusion of depth by means of blocking the reader from pinning a definite interpretation upon them. That is what is happening to Isabel here. She is unable to figure out what values Osmond is referring to, what standards he uses to judge. But she is still interested because she believes there is a value. But if Osmond is revealed to be a bad person with no morality and no higher values, then it will show that she has created the illusion of value from her own inability to interpret the signs. She has tricked herself into believing there is depth, when there is only superficiality.

Another theme that is relevant is the relationship between commodities and people. It is notable that many of Henry James' descriptions of characters end up being a comparison between a person and inanimate objects. Here, it seems that Osmond, who has so many nice objects and allows their value to all appreciate here in his own home as if they were collector's items, is comparing a woman to a commodity: "A woman's natural mission is to be where she's most appreciated," he says (231). This is an eerie description of moral value, with an indication that he is actually referring to financial value. Similarly, Isabel begins to see him as an aesthetic object: a painting with a low-tone.

In Chapter 25, we get a sense of what the true motivations of the characters are, beneath their appearances. There is the mention of money and marriage again: Isabel has seventy thousand pounds. But it is not quite clear why Madame Merle would be interested in giving Osmond Isabel's fortune through marriage. What does she have to gain from making this match? As a first time reader, it would be easy to overlook this chapter as the eccentric worries of Countess Gemini, who has been portrayed as a busybody. This foreshadows the true nature of Osmond.