The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady Summary and Analysis of Chapters 36-39

Chapter 36

In the autumn of 1876, Edward Rosier visits Madame Merle. (As we will find out in the course of this chapter, Isabel and Mr. Osmond have been married for quite some time now.) The reader will remember that Edward Rosier had met Isabel's acquaintance briefly in Paris. He was part of the American circle there. He is visiting Madame Merle because he had met Pansy in Saint Moritz, where he fell in love with her. He knows Madame Merle is close with the family and wants her to advise him. He thinks of Pansy as "admirably finished," a "consummate piece" (314). It will be remembered that Edward Rosier is quite a collector.

He immediately appreciates all of Madame Merle's fine things as he waits for her to greet him. He declares to Madame Merle that he cares more for Pansy Osmond than "all the bibelots in Europe!” (315.) He has come to ask for advice, and to be counseled on his prospects as a suitor for Pansy. Madame Merle agrees to help him, although she asks him what else he has to offer in marriage. He tells her he has a fortune of forty thousand francs a year. Merle thinks one might live sufficiently on such a sum, but not beautifully. She mentions that Pansy will bring little to a marriage, and that she does not think that Isabel will give her a dowry. Merle makes fun of Edward Rosier a bit, for being naïve about money. We learn that Isabel and Osmond do not yet have children, and that they have opposite opinions in everything.

Merle thinks that Osmond will be inclined to think he can do better for Pansy. Rosier thinks though that Pansy is in love with him. Madame Merle points out that he does not know this - he has not asked Pansy. Merle says she will find out for him though. He wants to speak to Isabel as well about the matter, but Merle cautions him that this would set Osmond against him.

Edward Rosier nevertheless goes to see Isabel, realizing that there is no real reason that Madame Merle would really help him.

Pansy is now living in a massive structure in the heart of Rome with Isabel and Osmond. Mr. Rosier thinks of this house as an evil omen, a dungeon. He thought of the palace as fully of Osmond's own taste, and not at all of Isabel's. He had learned from Isabel that her husband had added a lot to his collection after their marriage. Rosier thinks of Osmond as a good collector - he had been patient in marriage, and thus had landed the great prizes once he had finally married. Edward Rosier goes to visit Isabel who is now Mrs. Osmond.

Chapter 37

Edward Rosier now stands in the palace where Isabel and Osmond live at some sort of social gathering. Osmond greets him, saying his wife will be out shortly. When we see Isabel through Edward's eyes, it seems that she has changed very little, imparting still that secret "lustre" of a valuable item (322). Edward Rosier lets Isabel know that he would like to see Pansy.

When we see Pansy through Edward's eyes, the narrator tells us that while she is now nineteen years old, and that while she is pretty, she seems to lack style. She is dressed with "freshness" (324) instead. Edward Rosier would have been inclined to notice these defects, the narrator tells us, if he had not already attributed named her qualities with ideas of his own -- he thinks she is absolutely unique.

Mr. Rosier asks Pansy to show him the yellow room, and she agrees. He gets her to admit that she likes him, as she shows him her father's things. Pansy asks if Edward is sure that her father knows that he likes her; he retorts that her father is supposed to know everything.

Madame Merle arrives and talks to Gilbert Osmond about Mr. Rosier: Merle considers telling Mr. Rosier that Osmond dislikes the proposal, and Osmond is annoyed at the thought that this will make Mr. Rosier insist. Merle advises Osmond to keep Mr. Rosier on hand, for he may have a use for him. Osmond does not understand this.

Meanwhile Mr. Rosier speaks to Isabel. She tells him that he is not rich enough for Pansy, and he feels insulted. He has never been told that he is not good enough. She tells him Pansy's father cares about the money, and he hints that Osmond's love of money was apparent when he married Isabel.

Chapter 38

Edward Rosier goes to see Madame Merle, who quickly forgives him for breaking his promise not to speak to Isabel. She tells him that he needs to only be patient and he may have a chance. She also warns him not to visit the house too often.

Edward Rosier then skips one evening of the Thursday night gatherings at the Palazzo Roccanero, where Isabel and Osmond live together. The next Thursday he attends though. He discusses his love for Pansy with Osmond, who tells him that Pansy does not care for him and will not want to marry him. Edward then goes to discuss the matter with Isabel. As they are speaking, Lord Warburton suddenly appears. Edward slips away to speak with Pansy. Lord Warburton informs Isabel that he has arrived with Ralph, who has taken a turn for the worse. Isabel decides to see Ralph the next morning. She notes that Warburton has nothing of the spirit of revenge, and bears no malice against her for refusing him. She envies him in fact, because as a man, he has been able to plunge himself into the "healing waters of action" (338). He asks if she is happy, and she jokes that she would not tell him if she was not. She then says that she is happy. He says that he may yet marry.

Edward Rosier meanwhile speaks to Pansy, asking if she has changed her mind about him. She says she has not, but that she has promised her father that she will not speak with him. She tells him that her plan is to speak with Isabel about helping change Osmond's mind.

Lord Warburton and Isabel then come up to Pansy for Lord Warburton to be introduced to her.

Chapter 39

In this chapter, we get Ralph's view of Isabel's marriage: he feels that she wears a mask. He has a theory about her unhappiness and how she is only playing the part of a happy wife, but he knows that she would never tell him if this were the case. The relations between Ralph and Isabel have cooled significantly - they always feel somewhat formal, and Ralph notices a definite difference. He feels that Isabel will never forgive him for having insulted her husband.

Ralph did manage to make it to the wedding. The ceremony was very small: only Countess Gemini, Mrs. Touchett and Pansy were there to witness it. Henrietta had been critical of Mr. Osmond as well, and Mr. Osmond did not like Henrietta. Mrs. Touchett had only formal and distant relations with Isabel, and she had also broken her friendship with Madame Merle. Madame Merle acted as if Mrs. Touchett had offended her, pretending that she had simply not noticed Isabel had felt affectionate towards Gilbert Osmond during their travels together.

We learn that Isabel has had a child, but she has also lost it. The life she leads gives all the appearance of being a successful one: from the outside, there was nothing to gape at or criticize. Ralph though recognizes this appearance as the "hand of the master" (346). He notices that Isabel acts in too exaggerated a manner sometimes, and that she seems less curious, more indifferent. He feels that Isabel gives the appearance of a fine lady who is supposed to represent something -- namely, Gilbert Osmond. He realizes that Osmond had never had material with which express himself, but he had patiently waited. Isabel now serves the function of that material. But even though such material is very fine, Ralph thinks to himself, the thing being represented (Osmond) is absolutely vulgar. Ralph realizes that Osmond had given the appearance of caring for intrinsic values, but in actual fact, he lived for what others thought of him. His purpose was to project an image of impertinence and mystification - to make the world feel as if he were superior to it. "His ambition was not to please the world, but to please himself by exciting the world's curiosity and then declining to satisfy it," (347) the narrator tells us of Ralph's theory about Osmond.

Generally speaking Osmond does not seem to think Ralph is important enough to be disliked. However, once when Ralph stayed for too long in Rome, he knew that Osmond began to protest. Ralph then left so as not to disturb the relations between the couple. However, in a conversation with Lord Warburton, Ralph declares his intention to stay on, to see if Osmond will again protest. Also in this conversation, Lord Warburton and Ralph both intimate that they originally set upon their journey to see Isabel rather than to journey further south, as they had ostensibly planned to do. Ralph asks Warburton if he is trying to prove to Isabel that he does not intend to "make love to her" (see glossary) by showing interest in Pansy. Warburton wonders if Isabel will be pleased that he is showing interest in Pansy.


Many years have passed once Chapter 36 opens. It is an interesting technical choice on the part of James to begin this second part of his novel through the third-person point of view of Edward Rosier. Edward is not exactly an admirable character, and the narrator points out that his vision of Pansy is inaccurate. He also seems to resemble Osmond in subtle ways: they are both collectors, and they both have a habit of comparing persons of value to objects of value. He also believes that his own taste is quite accurately the only aesthetic standard - although it differs from Osmond's. In other words, his perspective is certainly not characterized by the perspicacity of others. Why then does James choose to introduce the story through his eyes?

One answer might be that Edward is an example of James' technique of the "ficelle" - a character who is two-dimensional and is used merely to move the action of the story along. It is James' way of economically summarizing what the relationship between Osmond and Isabel has turned out to be. As James once famously said, "Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so" (NYE Prefaces, Preface to Volume I, Roderick Hudson).

It is not until Chapter 40 that we get a peek into Isabel's world. Instead, Ralph's analysis in Chapter 39 of the situation paints a bleak picture for us. Ralph still believes Osmond is selfish and vulgar, and he believes that he has reduced Isabel to the function of being a "representative" of his own lack of values. It is interesting to pause over what is meant by an "intrinsic value" as opposed to Osmond's true values. Osmond cares what other people think of him, by Ralph's theory -- he cares how he appears to the world. He cares about his reputation and about having the means to show himself off in the world. But, the question is: does anyone else have an intrinsic value in this novel?

Isabel is valuable, as James has explained in the preface, because others think she is interesting. This too is a value gained because of the opinion of others. Furthermore, a comparison can be made between Henry James as the author and Gilbert Osmond as the manipulative husband: Henry James also enjoyed financial success from "using" Isabel Archer to represent his own ideas. What is the intrinsic value of the novel itself? Is it supposed to be a representation of the author's ideas, or is it valuable for some other reason? This question is being posed in a meta-fictional sense. Can we really detach the idea of "intrinsic value" from values for others -- isn't value, after all, a social phenomenon?