The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady Summary and Analysis of Chapters 50-51

Chapter 50

The Countess Gemini is visiting Isabel at the opening of this chapter. Pansy, Isabel and the Countess climb the Coliseum stairs together. Isabel notices, as Pansy and Countess ascend, that Edward Rosier is in the Coliseum as well, and he is watching them.

He comes over to Isabel and tells her that he has sold all of his bibelots (trinkets). He has done so that he will have money instead, enough for Mr. Osmond to think he is rich. Isabel tells him that Mr. Osmond will think him unwise now.

Pansy and the Countess approach them, and Edward quickly leaves. On the way home, Pansy shoots Isabel a look of melancholy. Isabel feels sorry for Pansy, but also envious for her timid passion. The Countess and Edward go off together. Later, it seems that the Countess has sided with Edward.

The next week, Pansy informs Isabel that her father is sending her back to the convent. Pansy says it will give her time to reflect. She will be very quiet and think a great deal. Isabel promises to visit her.

That evening, Isabel tells Osmond that she will miss Pansy very much. He says that he is sending Pansy away because she is "dusty" and "disheveled" from being out in the world too much (468). The narrator tells us though that his explanation is not so much a real explanation as it is an attempt to put his idea into words, so that he may see how it might look. He declares that he wants Pansy to look at the world in the right way.

Isabel finds Osmond's "sketch" very interesting (468). She feels as if it is being presented to her so as to mystify her, to make her imagination work.

The Countess Gemini interrupts Osmond to say that he ought to say he is just banishing Pansy because of Mr. Rosier. Osmond replies that it would be easier to banish the Countess herself.

Chapter 51

A week after Pansy's departure, Isabel receives a telegram from Mrs. Touchett. Ralph has taken a turn for the worse and will die soon. Isabel goes to Osmond's study so as to inform him of Ralph's condition and to declare her intention to go to Gardencourt to visit Ralph. Osmond thinks the only reason she is going is so that she will take her revenge out on her husband. Osmond tells her that if she leaves for Rome it will mean that she has taken a calculated opposition against her husband. Isabel tells him that it is his own opposition that is malignant and calculated. This is her worst thought -- she has never before spoken to her husband in this manner.

Osmond reminds her that their union is of "deliberate making" and that as her husband, he wants her to take their marriage seriously. He claims that he values honor above all. Isabel feels that this is really his egotism speaking, but also constitutes an appeal to her sense of honor. She recognizes that he speaks in the name of the most sacred things--the observance of a magnificent form (473). She had previously felt she could take action in visiting Ralph, but now she feels that this action's meaning has changed suddenly, "transformed by the blight of Osmond's touch" (473). Isabel though does not give up easily, and she accuses her husband of speaking of their union when he accuses her of falsity.

Isabel says that if she goes, Osmond must expect her never to come back. Osmond, who has turned to drawing a little sketch of something, thinks she is out of her mind. Isabel leaves, feeling as if Osmond can use any of her weaknesses against her. On her way out, she encounters Countess Gemini. She tells the Countess about Ralph's bad condition. The Countess for a minute realizes that Isabel will soon go into mourning and there will be no more dinner parties for her to attend. She also thinks about Isabel's troubled condition.

Isabel returns to her room and thinks about how one must choose one's husband over all else. She feels afraid of the violence of her going when Osmond wished her to stay. Isabel buries herself into a pile of cushions.

The Countess Gemini is hovering above her when she looks up. The Countess has come to comfort her and to encourage Isabel to do what she likes, to visit Ralph. She then tells Isabel that her first sister-in-law, the first wife of Osmond, had no children. Pansy is the daughter of Osmond and the wife of another man -- Madame Merle! Osmond had managed to disguise Pansy as the daughter of his deceased wife. Madame Merle had not been able to pass off the child as her own because she had been too long separated from her husband for it to be his. Isabel wonders that the Countess tells her this now. The Countess admits that she is bored with Isabel not knowing, and she is surprised at all the things that Isabel has succeeded in not knowing. Isabel pities Madame Merle, and the Countess is entertained by Isabel's kindness.

Isabel wonders why Osmond never married Madame Merle, and the Countess responds that Merle does not have money. Merle herself also still wanted to marry a great man.

The Countess concludes the conversation by asking Isabel if she will go on her journey after all. Isabel looks ill, and declares with an "infinite sadness" that she must see Ralph (483).


Osmond's decision to send Pansy away is his attempt to exercise more control over Pansy and her understanding of the world. Pansy, ever the obedient daughter, does not take it bitterly and resolves herself to do what her father tells her. Osmond though wants to present his idea as if it is for his daughter's own interest, and he creates a "portrait." This is an extended metaphor that is employed by the narrator to describe Osmond's actions. This metaphor then is presented to Isabel, who realizes the aesthetic illusion this sketch is supposed to create. The metaphor then serves to allow us to view these people's social relations and their attempts to manipulate the truth as similar to the way we approach a work of art. The reader of this ClassicNote will remember that aesthetics is the philosophical inquiry into what makes something beautiful, and what makes something into a work of art. Henry James, through this metaphor, is showing how Osmond can use aesthetic means to manipulate an ugly truth, to make an ugly truth appear better. Isabel, who once was convinced by Osmond's good taste (and therefore the value of his aesthetics), now is suspicious of it. She knows that it is a trick designed to work on her imagination, to make her believe that values are there which are not actually there.

Osmond is able to control Isabel by appealing to her sense of higher values -- values that she realizes he does not share, but which he can nevertheless use against her. She tries to point out his hypocrisy, but he is somehow maintains the upper hand.

The Countess arrives to put one of the final pieces of the puzzle together for Isabel. The use of a minor character to tie up this loose end and give a concrete reality to a suspicion that is only shadowy in Isabel's mind is a technique that is common to James' novels. In his New York Edition Prefaces, he calls it the use of a ‘ficelle’: a character that helps advance the plot, economizing on the infinite possibilities of what might happen by being minor themselves and somewhat two-dimensional.

When Isabel learns the truth, she shows her truly good nature by exercising her empathy for Madame Merle, who has so wickedly deceived her. She recognizes that not even Pansy likes Madame Merle - Pansy, Merle's very own daughter. Isabel has been successful exactly where Merle has not been: she has money, has received marriage proposals from prominent men, and she is often thought of as Pansy's guardian and stepmother.