The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady Summary and Analysis of Chapters 31-35

Chapter 31

The chapter opens with Isabel sitting at a window of Mrs. Touchett's Palazzo Crescentini, waiting for someone. A year has passed since she had left Florence: during this time, her sister and her sister's husband, the Ludlows, have visited her and toured Switzerland, Paris, and London with her. When they left, she felt free to act: she goes on a trip to the East with Madame Merle. She visits Turkey, Greece, and Egypt. Then she returns to Rome, and Gilbert Osmond comes down to visit her for a few weeks. The narrator has described all of this in the course of a few pages, all as background to the scene in which Isabel is waiting for a mysterious someone to arrive.

Chapter 32

We learn that Isabel is waiting for Caspar Goodwood. Isabel tells her that she wishes he had not come. Mr. Goodwood tells her that after what she has done to him he shall never feel anything for the rest of his life - just what she has done to him. Isabel notes that she will have to prepare for Henrietta arriving, and Goodwood asks if Henrietta knows of Mr. Osmond. Isabel says that she does not marry to please Henrietta. (Notably this is how we learn of Isabel's engagement to Mr. Osmond - we do not see the engagement itself take place.) Isabel claims that she does not marry for any of her friends, and that she is marrying a "perfect nonentity" (289).

Isabel feels agitation upon seeing Caspar Goodwood in his misery. But as he is leaving, she is afraid he will not utter the word that will give her the opportunity to defend herself. Although, the narrator wonders, if she has done nothing wrong, why is she so eager to defend herself? The narrator concludes that she is being generous to Goodwood. She claims she never deceived him, and that she was perfectly free. Caspar tells her he came to see for himself. He admits that he is selfish and would want her to be married to no one if she would not marry him. When he leaves, she breaks into a fit of weeping. Chapter 33

Isabel breaks the news of her engagement to Mrs. Touchett. Mrs. Touchett though, already seems to know. She blames Madame Merle, telling Isabel she now realizes that Merle only pretended to her that she would interfere if there were a danger that Isabel would marry Osmond. She thinks Merle has done something grand for Osmond, in giving him Isabel. Isabel does not think Merle had anything to do with her engagement. Mrs. Touchett thinks that Osmond has no name, no importance, and no fortune, so she has no idea why Isabel would marry him. Isabel hesitantly suggests that she should like to give Osmond some money. Mrs. Touchett wonders if Isabel marries Osmond for charity, and Isabel responds that she does not have to explain herself to Mrs. Touchett.

Chapter 34

Isabel and Mrs. Touchett agree that Mrs. Touchett will be the one to announce the engagement to the others. Ralph arrives two days after this discussion with Mrs. Touchett. Isabel knows he has been informed of the engagement, and prepares herself to meet with his resistance. But he is silent on the subject for several days, and she can only be patient and expectant. The narrator informs us though that Ralph indeed was displeased with the engagement, and he feels humiliated. He had miscalculated what Isabel would do.

Isabel happens upon Ralph in the garden. He seems to be sleeping - but when Isabel approaches him, he says he is just thinking of her. They finally broach the subject of her engagement. He tells her that he can only say what he thinks of Osmond if she ends up not going through with the engagement, because otherwise he will have spoken ill of her husband to be. This is offensive already to her, but she says she is not angry because she knows his opinion is disinterested. He says she has been trapped, and that she will be put into a cage. She asks what the harm is, if she likes her cage. He finally admits to thinking that Osmond is small. She considers this - the word seems large to her. Ralph says that he thinks Osmond has taste, and only taste - he does nothing, he only judges. He does not really feel his relation to others, according to Ralph. He of course has no proof that Osmond is a sinister character, but he nevertheless has guessed that he is a selfish person. He had thought of Isabel as a soaring creature, high up in the air, and he feels that she has fallen. Isabel does not know what she means about being high in the sky.

Ralph accidentally lets slip that he loves Isabel, and Isabel is annoyed - is he too on that tiresome list? She wishes to strike him off that list. Ralph quickly realizes his mistake and tells her he is still disinterested in the matter because he loves without hope.

Isabel says that she likes what Osmond has and what he represents. She believes that Osmond is a man to whom being important is not a big deal - and she finds that large. Would Ralph prefer it, she asks, if she made a marriage of ambition, so that she herself could become more important for being with someone important? She likes it that Mr. Osmond is not rich. She thinks Ralph is making a mistake in his judgment of Mr. Osmond's character. Osmond wants to teach her about the world, and she believes he knows everything, understands everything.

Ralph realizes how ardently Isabel believes what she says -- he finds her "dismally consistent" (305). He realizes that she "loved him not for what he possessed, but for his very poverties dressed out as honours." (305) Ralph felt sick, realizing that he had wanted Isabel to be able to meet her imagination with the financial means to do so - he realizes that his act of beneficence has resulted in her ability to do so by (by dressing Osmond's poverties as honors.)

Isabel feels more resolved by the end of their conversation, and Ralph realizes he can do nothing. He says that he feels bad, because she is in trouble. Isabel says she will never complain to him if she is in trouble.

Chapter 35

Isabel feels isolated now that she knows how her friends disapprove of her marriage. The narrator tells us: "the chief impression produced on Isabel's spirit by this criticism was that the passion of love separated its victim terribly from everyone but the loved object" (306). She knew Henrietta would come out to disapprove of her, and she thinks also of the disapproval that Caspar Goodwood had and that Lord Warburton would undoubtedly have. Her sisters have written to her out of duty, but they also wonder why she did not make a better match.

Osmond is satisfied - the narrator describes him as full of self-control, and capable thus of acting tender and kind. He does think that Madame Merle has made him a wonderful "present" (307). He is glad that Isabel is not dull; he thinks of her as a "silver plate" that reflects back to him his own thoughts in an original form, making them seem all the more splendid. He knows though that their relations do not approve, and he tells Isabel that he thinks they disapprove because of their difference in fortune. He defends himself by saying that he has shown himself to never care for money, insofar as he has never tried to earn it. He tells her they will get on very well.

Isabel meanwhile feels that she is surrendering to Osmond in an act of humility - rather than simply taking in the act of marriage, she has something to give. She is tired of observing - after a year of traveling abroad - and now wants to engage in the "act of living" (309) even more. No longer did she feel she could never marry - she has a more primitive need to be beneficent. She is glad to have a private duty "that might gather one's energies to a point" (309).

Pansy is glad the two will marry. She thinks that Isabel and her father suit each other well. When they are discussing the matter though, Isabel has a strange fear that she will one day have to protect Pansy from harm.

Countess Gemini tells Isabel that she is glad for herself that Isabel and Osmond will marry, but she cannot be glad for Isabel. She declares that she only tells fibs if she has something to gain from it, and therefore she is being honest with Isabel when she tells her that she and Osmond have fallen quite low in status. She predicts that Isabel and herself will never be quite intimate with each other. She makes some declarations as to marriage in general, how she sees them as a "steel trap" for women (312).


Much time passes in Chapter 31 - in fact, the entirety of Isabel's physical adventures are abruptly curtailed in a brief 2-to-3-page summary. It is notable too, that this reminiscence of Isabel's travels is contextualized in her mind's eye -- she is awaiting Caspar Goodwood, and thinking about how much she herself has changed since she last saw him. This is a common technique that Henry James employs: the narrator lends some more concrete words for the very vague reminiscences of a character, allowing that character to reflect upon their own experiences, but also allowing the reader to reap the benefit of a more objective, summary view of certain events. "If her thoughts just now had inclined themselves to retrospect, instead of fluttering their wings nervously about the present, they would have evoked a multitude of interesting pictures," (279) the narrator tells us. This again is called "hypothetical discourse" as coined by scholar Arlene Young (see analysis of Chapter 4).

Isabel's reaction in Chapter 32 to Caspar Goodwood is curiously physical and emotional. Is she really as disinterested in him as she claims to be? The novel itself deals very little with strong, physical outbursts of emotions: Isabel's scenes with Caspar Goodwood are an exception to the rule. One theory is that Isabel is sexually attracted to Goodwood, but her Victorian prudery makes her repress this idea; she wants to escape her own sexuality in his presence.

It is important to notice the reactions of others to Isabel's engagement, and how Isabel's resolution becomes more concrete in the face of their opposition. In her conversation with Mrs. Touchett, she does not quite know why she wants to marry Osmond, and she can barely articulate it. When she discusses her motivations with Ralph, her own conviction becomes more concrete. "His opposition had made her own conception of her conduct clearer to her," (305) the narrator tells us. Ralph says that he had thought of the great "idea" she would actualize in the world only in the "negative" -- but we should notice that her marrying Osmond is actually an articulation of a negative idea -- of an idea that exists only as one in opposition to others' opinions. In other words, she feels like she freely chooses her marriage to Osmond mostly because no one in her circle seems to approve of the engagement. So the narrator tells us, the disapproval of others for Isabel "served mainly to throw into higher relief, in every way so honourable, that she married to please herself." (306)

Osmond's narcissism becomes apparent in Chapter 35. It is notable how he thinks of Isabel as a fine object, a present made to him by Madame Merle, rather than seeming to really be in love with her. Again, there is a comparison between a person and a commodity: he thinks of Isabel as a "silver plate." Consider the coldness of this extended metaphor - he continues to think of how he will heap fruits onto this plate. His conception of a good relationship is that the other person reflects one's own thoughts back to oneself -- it seems that he will give very little room for Isabel to have ideas of her own. He has the attitude of a connoisseur or collector to a commodity of value. It does not quite fit a more romantic conception of love - of loving Isabel for herself.