The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady Summary and Analysis of Chapters 27-30

Chapter 27

Isabel visits Rome with Ralph, Henrietta, and Mr. Bantling. One day, they are visiting some old Roman ruins that are in the process of being excavated. Henrietta and Mr. Bantling wander off together, and Ralph goes to see an archaeological dig that is in process, leaving Isabel alone with her thoughts. She is distracted, thinking little about her outside surroundings, and very much preoccupied with her inner world. However, she has little time to herself because suddenly Lord Warburton appears. They are equally surprised to see one another. He explains that he is stopping in Rome after having travelled to Turkey and the Asia Minor for 6 months. He then cannot help but declare that he still loves her, and he has written her many letters during their time apart, which he has then burned before sending. Isabel is still firm: she wants to be friendly with him but does not want to encourage him.

The next day, the group of four and Lord Warburton visit Saint Peter's Basilica. They have completed a walk around the church and are watching a choir singing at the entrance of the church, when Isabel suddenly discovers Gilbert Osmond has been watching her. He tells her that he decided to come, and that her hotel told him that he would find her here. Isabel blushes at the thought of what she had previously said to Lord Warburton when she rejected him, as she juxtaposes it with the image of Gilbert Osmond in Rome with herself.

Gilbert Osmond meets the group, and Henrietta declares all of Isabel's companions in Europe to be unlikeable people. Osmond mentions that he thinks being in Saint Peter's makes one feel small.

Meanwhile, Lord Warburton asks Ralph privately about Gilbert Osmond: does Ralph think Isabel will accept a marriage proposal from Osmond, if that is indeed his intention? Ralph replies that he thinks she will not accept so long as they do nothing to prevent the marriage.

Chapter 28

The next day Lord Warburton goes to the opera, where he knows he will find Isabel and the others. He spots Isabel in a box with Gilbert Osmond and decides to join her. Lord Warburton then glumly watches the two together during the opera. He feels angry and puzzled.

Osmond later asks about Lord Warburton. Upon finding out about his character and his fortune, he declares that he would like to be Lord Warburton. Isabel jokes that he is always envying someone, and Osmond responds that his envy is not dangerous.

A day later, Lord Warburton abruptly announces that he is leaving Rome, when he encounters them in the gallery of the Capitol. Isabel, then, left alone, in front of the statue of the Dying Gladiator, feeling the vividness of the past. Isabel wonders about these Greek sculptures around her, wondering what they would say if they were alive. After she is sitting alone for half an hour, Gilbert Osmond appears.

Osmond notes that Isabel is quite cruel to Lord Warburton. We learn that Osmond, who is very fond of originals, takes a real liking from the idea that Lord Warburton desires Isabel. He likes the idea of taking a "young lady who had qualified herself to figure in his collection of choice objects by declining so noble a hand" (266). In other words, he thinks of Isabel as a collector's object that he will hoard for himself. She has more value now that she has had the original idea of rejecting such an aristocratic figure as Lord Warburton.

Chapter 29

Ralph notes that Osmond is a very agreeable companion. We learn that Osmond thinks Isabel is a fine figure, but that she has the fault of being too ready, too precipitate. Osmond feels quite happy and he even writes Isabel a sonnet. He has a sense of success. He had never tried much for such success, but he definitely would have felt he would have earned it, if he had had it. He knew he had style, and he felt Isabel would help him show it to the world.

Isabel receives a note from her aunt, with her aunt telling her she will take her to Bellagio. Before she leaves, Osmond tells her that she will probably go and travel the world; that she is under no obligation to come back. He tells her that he has no desire to see her while she is travelling, and would prefer it if she simply visit him once she has done travelling. Isabel accuses him of thinking her travels ridiculous. He replies that this is not true, and that he believes one should make one's life a work of art. He tells her to go out and do what she likes.

He tells her that he loves her. Isabel feels herself retreat, shocked by the words. He says that he only tells her because he thinks it will not offend her, and he admits he has nothing to offer her. She will always be the most important woman in the world to him, he declares. The narrator tells her "Isabel looked at herself in this character" (272). She likes the image, but she reacts otherwise.

He asks her to just do him a small favor when she returns to her aunt's home: he would like her to visit his daughter, Pansy, whom he has left alone during his trip to Rome. Isabel says she will do him this favor, and she dismisses him.

When he leaves her alone, Isabel realizes that her imagination had been going forward to meet this moment, but when it had come, she is entirely shocked. The narrator declares Isabel's reaction odd, mentioning that her imagination is a "vague space" that could not seem to breach dangerous territory.

Chapter 30

Isabel announces her intention to visit Pansy to Madame Merle, but Merle cautions her that it might not look appropriate, since Gilbert Osmond is a bachelor. Isabel wonders what it matters, as Osmond is not there currently. Merle responds, "They don't know he's away, you see." Isabel asks whom she means. She responds, "Everyone. But perhaps it doesn't signify" (275).

Isabel goes to visit Pansy anyway. She is extremely impressed by the young creature, noting how innocent she is. She wonders if perhaps the natural mannerism of the child is really the "perfection of self-consciousness" (276). The narrator thinks that Pansy is really a blank page, which really has no will and could be easily mystified.

Pansy mentions to Isabel how a friend of hers has been withdrawn from the convent in order to save money for her dowry. She wonders if that is the reason why she is being withdrawn from the convent. She notes that it costs much money to marry, but she wishes really only to stay with her father for her whole life. Pansy says she lives for her father, to make him happy. Isabel leaves, feeling like she would have liked to tell Pansy something about her father, but that she will have ruined Pansy's innocence if she does.


In these chapters, we start to see the significance of one person's view of oneself for determining one's actions and preferences in the world. Isabel likes how she herself is seen by Gilbert Osmond; Gilbert Osmond likes how Lord Warburton sees Isabel, and decides that Isabel is worthy of being admired because of it; and Ralph believes that if he and Lord Warburton do not suggest Isabel that Gilbert Osmond is not a good suitor, that she will not act the contrary part and end up marrying him. Isabel seems to be an original because she likes to act contrary to how people expect her to, so Ralph believes that if they do not want her to marry Gilbert Osmond, she will do the opposite. Yet, Isabel also likes how she is seen from the eyes of Gilbert Osmond -- but she is here trying to act contrary to this vision, as if she wanted to continue asserting her liberty. However, the problem is that Gilbert Osmond does not give her something very concrete to react against: it is instead a vague image, as he does not even propose marriage to her. This allows for her imagination to grow enormously. If he had proposed marriage, it seems that she would have had an immediate reaction to the contrary.

It is interesting to consider the growth of Isabel's imagination in the context of the sudden appearances of Lord Warburton and Gilbert Osmond, which are juxtaposed against each other. Lord Warburton interrupts her inner world, as if he is a daydream come alive. He admits that she has appeared to him as if he had wished her into existence, but the set up of the scene implies to us that Isabel herself has wished him into existence. Yet, it is almost as if this exact correspondence to her imagination is something that Isabel cannot accept: she is too ambitious to be satisfied with the concrete reality of any of her ideas, and thus she rejects him. Notably, the background references the buried past: she is in a site where they have archaeological digs. It is as if something real and concrete has been dug up from her past life and appeared here in Rome -- Lord Warburton himself. In contrast, Gilbert Osmond appears in Saint Peter's basilica, described as a place where most people are disappointed. Isabel though is not disappointed, because she is capable of imagining something that is not there, while also ignoring that which is actually present before her eyes. We are led to believe that this is how she sees Osmond: she can imagine a lot of vague things about him, because she is blind to what is right before her eyes, and because she is not able to concretely grasp what he is about. Osmond's vague declaration of love serves to further this pattern. Because he is not concretely offering his hand in marriage, she is instead allowed to imagine further possibilities as to where their relationship might go, to have her own original idea about them, rather than slotting them into a conventional social form. Isabel's imagination works best when it is vague or when it is working against something concrete. But when something corresponds to her imagination, it is as if she is scared of something -- perhaps disappointment of how pathetic reality actually is.

Pansy's characterization in Chapter 30 gives plenty of room for Isabel's imagination, but it has little substance in itself. She is described as a blank page, so that Isabel can project what she wishes to upon her. It seems that this might be the seed for Isabel's later acceptance of Osmond's proposal of marriage. Isabel would like to do something for the child - she would like to give Pansy the choice to marry or not. This could be one interpretation of Isabel's psychological motivations for marrying Gilbert Osmond.

In Chapter 30, we get an indication of what the social mores were at the time. It was inappropriate for young women to visit unmarried men alone. This is evidence of the Victorian prudery of the time. Isabel makes a good point in noting that Merle has visited Osmond alone and it has not mattered. There is a suggestion though that Merle has made a point of allowing her visits not "to signify." This is an interesting theme throughout the work: what do social conventions signify, and how do they signify? For example, what does it mean when someone acts inappropriately - does it mean that this person is vulgar? Merle hints that she is a master of manipulating the signs of social conventions: she can control how things signify, rather than simply accepting that they signify something obvious. See Sharon Cameron's work (on citations page) for more on how characters manipulate social signs and meaning.