The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady Summary and Analysis of Chapters 48-49

Chapter 48

Ralph decides to return to England, and Henrietta insists that she accompany him. Caspar also will take the journey with the pair, because he has promised Isabel. Caspar tells Ralph that he knows Isabel simply wants to get rid of him. Caspar came to see if Isabel is happy. Ralph tells him that Isabel is the most "visibly happy" woman he knows (439).

Before leaving, Henrietta tells the Countess Gemini that her speculations about Lord Warburton's affair with Isabel were incorrect because Lord Warburton was in fact courting Pansy. Gemini points out to Henrietta that no proposal resulted.

Henrietta encourages Isabel to leave her husband before the worst occurs. Isabel insists that she will remain the same person in spite of her husband.

Ralph and Isabel have parting words. Ralph speaks as if he will see her again. Isabel suddenly lets on that she is unhappy, telling him that she is afraid of herself. She is upset that she cannot accompany Ralph herself, feeling that it is her duty. Ralph tells Isabel that he has kept alive out of his interest in Isabel. Isabel tells him he can send for her, and she will come to him at Gardencourt. Ralph knows that Osmond would not consent to that. Isabel insists that she can arrange for it.

Osmond has parting words with Caspar Goodwood. He tells him that he and his wife have liked him because Caspar has helped them reconcile them to the future. He sees Caspar as a really new kind of man, the most modern man he knows. Osmond claims that Isabel and he typically have the same opinion about things. Caspar, meanwhile, wants to see Isabel alone one last time. He has a dull rage of his consciousness of things. He feels suspicious of Osmond even though he knows his host has been very generous with him. The narrator tells us that Goodwood had actually wished Osmond dead and might even have liked to kill him. He does feel that he has no proof that Osmond does not in fact get along with Isabel. But he is irritated because he feels he does not even know the truth.

Caspar does not manage to speak with Isabel alone until most everyone has left the party. He asks Isabel outright: "what have you really made of your life? I can't understand, I can't penetrate you!" (449.) He feels that she is inscrutable, and that is what makes him suspect she has something to hide. He declares that he has come simply because he loves her still. He realizes though it is none of his business whether or not she is happy. Isabel finally tells him that he can pity her every so often.

Chapter 49

Madame Merle returns to Rome and she asks Isabel what happened with Lord Warburton. She pretends to take the whole affair lightly, but Isabel notices that she takes a more zealous interest than she should in Pansy's marriage. Isabel suspects even more than Merle has had a hand in Isabel's own marriage. She no longer feels that Merle's proximity to her is a mere "accident" (452), but rather that it is intentionally plotted. She has no definite suspicion, but she still feels there had been some sort of intention on Merle's part. Merle lets Isabel know that her husband is disappointed in her. Isabel feels bitter upon hearing how Osmond has been speaking ill of his wife.

Merle insists on knowing whether Lord Warburton left on his own or whether Isabel advised it. She thinks it would help Osmond know what his daughter's prospects are if he knew what had occurred. Isabel turns pale. She asks Merle: "Who are you--what are you? What have you to do with my husband? … What have you to do with me?" (455.) Merle responds: "Everything!" The truth came over Isabel like a "high-surging wave" (455). Merle had been responsible for her marriage.

Isabel goes for a drive alone that afternoon. The image of Madame Merle hovered before her. She wonders if the word "wicked" could be applied to her friend (456). She realizes that Merle has been deeply false to her. Isabel still wonders why Merle would want to bring about the event of her marriage so much that she should behave so badly. She thinks to herself that it must have something to do with money; Merle had married her to an intimate companion who might give Merle some money. She wonders if Gilbert had only wanted her money, would he let her go if she gave him all of it? She feels sorry for Merle, though, because she thinks she must not have gotten the money she had wanted.

The narrator then leads the reader to a scene simultaneously occurring between Gilbert and Merle. Merle thinks Gilbert is ungrateful for what she has given him. Osmond is annoyed with her and asks what is wrong with her. She declares that she would give anything to be able to weep, but that she cannot do so anymore, since she has met Mr. Osmond. Merle recognizes that she was horrible to Isabel and she claims Gilbert has dried up her soul. Merle claims that Osmond has taken out his revenge upon Isabel, making his wife afraid of him and treating her badly. Osmond claims that she loses sight of the real and that he is in fact very simple. He asks only that his wife adore him. Merle says that she herself never adored him, and Osmond points out that she pretended to. Merle mourns the fact that she is being taught a lesson of having represented herself falsely, and Osmond critiques her for sounding like a "sentence in a copy book" (462).


Goodwood is an interesting character because he introduces the specter of a possibly violent resolution to a book that has been so far, very melodramatic. There is the suggestion that he may kill Osmond. He seethes with rage during this scene. James extensively revised sections of the book for his New York Edition anthology in 1907, and it is notable that Goodwood's sections receive much attention. Caspar wants to "penetrate" Isabel - there is a suggestion that he does not only want knowledge of her situation, but carnal knowledge of her. James made Goodwood's sexuality more explicit in his revision of the novel. We might read this through a psychoanalytic lens, whereby sexuality, everywhere repressed by Victorian manners, threatens to bubble to the surface in the figure of Goodwood.

Isabel's realizes that Merle and Osmond are much more intimate than she ever knew because Merle begins to deliver messages to Isabel from Osmond. Merle obviously knows what is "between" Osmond and Isabel, and she has acted as an intermediary the whole time. Isabel cannot pinpoint the concrete nature of Merle's interest in her marriage, but she recognizes the plot. This is a demonstration of Isabel's own imagination finally pinning itself on an intricate, real idea, as shadowy as it may be. The reader will remember that at the beginning of the novel, Isabel had only ideas without any concrete articulation of these ideas. Merle has provided the "means" for such an articulation through arranging a marriage to Osmond. However, Isabel here discovers that the intermediary (Merle) has determined the entire idea. In other words, there is no escaping the effect that a medium has upon the message it expresses. The medium can actually change the meaning of the original idea it meant to express. In other words, Henry James is considering the nature of signifiers in relation to what they ultimately signify.

Osmond and Merle's conversation finally reveals the intimate nature of their relationship -- the reader can guess that they once had an affair. Osmond's reaction to Merle is interesting: the story twice ironically references the melodramatic, literary nature of Merle's complaints through the voice of Osmond. He says she likes a "sentence in a copy book" and that she talks of revenge "like a third-rate novelist" (460). He serves something like an editorial function to her soap opera-like thoughts. It is as if Henry James is reflecting on the melodramatic nature of his plot and trying to "edit" it and make it more realistic through splitting the problem between two characters.

We might understand the melodramatic nature of Henry James' novel in the context of Isabel's reference to Merle as a "wicked" person. In our modern world, to make the distinction between good and evil is a more theological notion that does not apply in our daily lives -- it seems somewhat antiquated for example to refer to someone who is a psychologically disturbed criminal as "evil" or "wicked." Isabel therefore notes the foreign usage of the word. Yet she applies the word because she is making a moral judgment of her friend, and morality is based on making such distinctions, between ultimately good and bad actions. To apply a standard of morality to something is generally to draw a line, a strong distinction between options. However, because this fictional world is devoid of religious guidance, it cannot be God who provides a guide for making such distinction. Instead, Henry James makes recourse to the melodrama: a genre that draws drastic distinctions and applies them to events of daily life. (Think for example of a soap opera, where you have villains and do-gooders. They are melodramatic in nature because they draw distinct lines between good actions and bad actions, with very little in between.) For more information on this idea, see Peter Brooks' book, The Melodramatic Imagination (see works cited).