The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady Summary and Analysis of Chapters 52-55

Chapter 52

Before departing for London, Isabel decides to visit Pansy. As she is waiting for Pansy, she is surprised to happen upon Madame Merle. Seeing this woman who was so present to her imagination all day in the flesh is like seeing "a painted picture move" (484). Isabel feels that this is like evidence in court against Merle, of Merle's own interest in Pansy's affairs.

Merle offers up the excuse that she should have told Isabel she meant to visit Pansy, and that she only thought Pansy might be lonely. Merle talks at length about Pansy and the convent. Isabel then noted a sudden break in her voice -- a modulation that marked Merle's perception of Isabel's changed attitude towards her. She realizes that Isabel knows her secret. She falters for a moment, but then she regains herself. She realizes that she is only safe if she does not betray herself.

Isabel sees this all as if it is reflected in a "clear glass" (487). Isabel enjoys the knowledge that Madame Merle had felt herself being exposed. Isabel is looking out the window though, and she sees - not the garden outside, but rather, the "dry staring fact that she had been an applied handled hung-up tool" (487). Her only revenge though is not to react, to sit there silently. Merle realizes that Isabel will never reproach her, never given her the opportunity to defend herself.

Isabel goes to see Pansy, and she feels that the girl has been "vanquished" by her father's will (491). Pansy is worried that Isabel will leave her forever when she says that she will go to England. Pansy says it will be easier for her to do as Osmond and Merle like if Isabel is around. She declares that she does not like Merle, and Isabel cautions her to never say that again.

Merle appeals to Isabel before she leaves the convent again. Merle tells Isabel that her cousin Ralph once did he a great service, and asks Isabel if she knows what it is. She goes on to tell Isabel that Ralph is the one who made her a rich woman -- it was Ralph's idea to give her the money, and Isabel ought to thank him for making a brilliant match. Isabel ironically replies that she thinks it is Merle that she has to thank. Merle lowers her eyes, recognizes Isabel is unhappy, and declares that she will go to America.

Chapter 53

On Isabel's journey to Gardencourt, she has many disconnected visions as she looks out the window -- not of what is outside, but rather she has "sightless eyes." She thinks back to many memories and of her own expectations, realizing the mutual relations and interconnectedness of things that she did not notice before. This rises before her like a vast architectural vastness. She wishes to give it all up, to not know anything. She thinks of her time in Rome as a time in which she was as good as dead - she was motionless and passive. Yet she feels now she will go on living much longer, and this gives her hope of happiness in the future. She is still optimistic that to live does not mean only to suffer.

When she arrives in England, Henrietta Stackpole and Mr. Bantling greet her at the train station. Isabel lets Henrietta know that Osmond will make a scene when she returns, but that she has promised Pansy she will return. Henrietta announces that she will marry Mr. Bantling and relocate to London. Isabel is somewhat disappointed, thinking that a marriage to Mr. Bantling is somewhat unoriginal. Nevertheless she admires Henrietta because it seems that Henrietta is planning to "attack" London.

Chapter 54

Isabel's arrival in Gardencourt is as quiet as her first time there. She wonders to herself what would have happened to her if she had never met her aunt - would she have married Caspar Goodwood? Mrs. Touchett comes to greet Isabel and inform her of Ralph's condition. He is not doing well, and Mrs. Touchett states that he has not had a successful life. Isabel says that he has had a beautiful one. Mrs. Touchett asks Isabel three questions: has she ever regretted her refusal of Lord Warburton? Isabel says she has not. Are she and Madame Merle still friends? Isabel says she is not. What did Madame Merle do to her? Isabel replies that she made a convenience of her.

Isabel waits by Ralph's bedside for three days before he is finally well enough to speak. When he finally sits up, he believes he is near his end. He says he was not sure she would come. He then asks what she has done for him, implying that she has acted in opposition to her husband in coming to see him. She responds by asking him the same thing: what is it that he did for her? Did he really make her a rich woman? He tells her that he thinks he ruined her. Isabel admits that Osmond married her for her money. Ralph tells Isabel that she wanted to look at life, but ended up ground into the mill of the conventional. Yet he still has hope that she will be young again.

Chapter 55

Isabel awakens one morning with the feeling that there is a ghost in her bedroom. She remembers Ralph saying that if she had suffered enough she might see the ghost of Gardencourt. She sees the figure - it appears to be Ralph. She goes to Ralph's bedroom to find Mrs. Touchett over his bed, and Ralph lying as still as his father had lain there six years earlier. Ralph has passed away. Death had not come violently, as Ralph had seen it a long time coming.

At the funeral, Isabel is very conscious of Caspar Goodwood's presence. She wonders why he is still in England, and she senses a complex intention on his part.

Isabel stays awhile longer at Gardencourt, thinking of Rome with a spiritual shudder. She recognizes though that she must return to Rome, because she has an obligation there. She knew she must make her decision.

Mrs. Touchett informs Isabel that Ralph has left her nothing, noting her opinion that Mr. Touchett had already been enormously generous with Isabel. Gardencourt is to be sold and divided, and Mrs. Touchett mentions that Ralph has left Henrietta Stackpole his library. She finds this ludicrous.

One afternoon, Isabel is in the library when she notices Lord Warburton has arrived at Gardencourt. She assumes he wants to pay his respects to Mrs. Touchett rather than to see herself. To prove this theory, she leaves the house, wandering outside into the garden. Mrs. Touchett and Lord Warburton though come to find her. Mrs. Touchett claims that Lord Warburton had no idea of Isabel's presence at Gardencourt. Warburton insists that Isabel come visit him at Lockleigh. He abstains from mentioning his fiancée.

When Lord Warburton leaves, Isabel wanders over to a bench in the garden. She remembers it as the place where she read Caspar Goodwood's letter six years earlier, and as the place where Lord Warburton surprised her with his marriage proposal. She feels it is a historical bench. She sits there for a while, looking like a "victim of idleness", without purpose (516).

Suddenly, Caspar Goodwood approaches her, much as Lord Warburton had approached her many years earlier. She rises immediately, but Caspar grabs her wrist and makes her sink back down onto the bench with him. She closes her eyes, so as to avoid looking at him in the face. In an instant, he disengages her wrist. She has a feeling of danger in his presence; she notes his resolution.

Caspar tells her that he can help her, that Ralph told him everything about her unhappy state and how much it would cost her if she came to Gardencourt against her husband's will. Isabel responds that it is none of Caspar's business. Goodwood responds that he would normally have been offended to hear another man speak of Isabel as Ralph did, but that Ralph was dying. He had promised Ralph that he would look after Isabel. He asks why she should bother going back to Rome, back to that "ghastly form" (519) of life. She responds that she does it so as to get away from Caspar Goodwood himself. But, the narrator says, this response does not express everything she feels. She also feels that she has never really been loved, and this knowledge sweeps her off of her feet.

Goodwood tells her that he is hers forever, and encourages her to save what she can of her own life. He points out that she has no children, and that she ought not to care what others think. "We can do absolutely as we please; to whom under the sun do we owe anything?" (520) Goodwood insists. He believes the world is very large. Isabel retorts that the world is very small, although she actually feels that it is quite large. She asks him to do her the kindness of going away.

He kisses her suddenly. "His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her…." the narrator tells us (521). She then feels the darkness return and she is free. She runs off. She feels she now knows the straight path to take.

Two days later, Caspar Goodwood goes to Henrietta Stackpole's place in London. He has heard Isabel is there. Henrietta tells him that Isabel has gone on to Rome.


The scene between Madame Merle and Isabel in Chapter 52 is a very important one for understanding James' project. In the preface, he has declared that Isabel is made extraordinary by her perceptiveness. Yet, we have learned that she often does not see what is right in front of her, being willfully ignorant, and she often sees more than what is right in front of her, allowing her imagination to work on the material right in front of her. In this scene however, Isabel finally is victorious in understanding the situation and allowing herself to be seen as an all-knowing and seeing entity. Merle sees that Isabel knows what she is - she knows her true nature. However, Merle cannot resist taking her down a notch, proving to her that her vision is not so extraordinary after all, by telling her about Ralph's gift to her. It is as if Isabel is a "clear glass" that allows Merle to see herself as a monstrosity for the first time.

The end of the novel seems haunted by the past. The so-called "ghost" of Ralph Touchett appears. Recall that Isabel had earlier thought that the house of Gardencourt might be haunted, and Ralph had joked that she might live to see the ghost. However, while Isabel had expected the ghost of European history to make its appearance in the house -- for she had associated European convention with haunted houses and Romances – now, this ghost has come to stand for the American experience in Europe. We might read this in terms of an understanding of Americans making their mark on the history of Europe, in line with the Old World vs. New World theme.

Goodwood's forced kiss at the end of the novel and his speech to Isabel suggests that he thinks it is perfectly acceptable to begin an extramarital affair with her. Isabel however, fights against this possibility. Her running away from him suggests that she is willing to accept the consequences of her marriage to Osmond once and for all, and upholds the honor of her actions of marrying Osmond. She wants to uphold a conventional notion of duty. This is representative of Isabel's final moral action.

We can also read the ending though as Isabel's weakness rather than her strength. Every time she has a scene with Caspar Goodwood, she has a very physical reaction to him. It is as if she is attracted to him physically but cannot accept this about herself. Goodwood thus seems to represent her unconscious desires from which she runs away.