During the period of Mr. Touchett’s declining health, Isabel and Madame Merle are thrown together by circumstance and form a great friendship. Indeed, “Isabel had never encountered a more agreeable and interesting figure than Madame Merle.” The young woman confides more in her older friend than she has with any other. Madame Merle also greatly enjoys their new friendship and is keen to see what Isabel makes of life.
After her fraught parting with Henrietta, Isabel has found a much more suitable companion to learn from and share experiences with. However, Madame Merle represents the power of European Old World charm to influence and even corrupt naïve individuals such as Isabel, for Merle will later be revealed as a treacherous woman.
Isabel spends some time theorizing about Madame Merle’s character, deciding that Merle was once a passionate individual who is now not so “original” but but instead gains admiration as a sophisticated and charming woman who lives through her relationships with others.
Isabel is quite self-satisfied in her belief that she is more “original” or interesting than the older Madame Merle. This is one of the novel’s examples that showcase Isabel’s flawed character. Considering her new friendship, Isabel is able to see that Madame Merle thrives on connection with other people, but James later reveals Merle is a social parasite who manipulates her peers for personal benefit.
Throughout this period, a bout of bad weather confines the sickly Ralph to his rooms. One day he watches Isabel and Madame Merle walk through the rain together, feeling both regret and reproach toward them.
Ralph’s feelings likely stem from his jealousy of Isabel’s close new friendship with Madame Merle, as well as from his frustration at his illness preventing him from spending time with Isabel. Despite his efforts, Ralph is still infatuated with his cousin.
Isabel continues her sincere conversations with Madame Merle. When Isabel theorizes to Merle that the older woman must have once been hurt by a person or event, Merle responds that indeed she has not always been so happy as her current self. She likens herself to a pot that has been “shockingly chipped and cracked” before being “cleverly mended.” She promises that she will one day recount her story to Isabel, but for now she wants to focus on discussing the exciting prospects that lie ahead of Isabel. Isabel is delighted by Madame Merle’s attentions and praise.
Madame Merle likens herself to a pot that has been mended after severe damage, causing one to wonder what hides beneath the fixed façade. Isabel does not wonder too much at Merle’s mystery because she is charmed and flattered by Merle’s interest in Isabel’s identity and dreams for the future. Merle symbolizes a mother figure that Isabel has lacked from a young age due to Mrs. Archer’s early death.
Madame Merle feels that Americans are treated unjustly in European society and cannot live naturally. She offers Ralph as an example, suggesting that he is simply “idle,” although not as idle as her friend Gilbert Osmond. Osmond is an American in Italy who is devoted to his only daughter (Pansy) but spends all of his time painting.
Like many other characters, Madame Merle calls attention to the pronounced differences between American and European cultures. She introduces the name of her good friend, Gilbert Osmond (later revealed to be Merle’s secret lover). Osmond will also be the cause of years of unhappiness for Isabel.
Merle also reveals that she feels uncomfortable staying at Gardencourt when Mr. Touchett is so unwell. She finds it hard to offer comfort to Ralph in particular, for she believes Ralph doesn’t like her and feels injured by his disfavor. Isabel fails to question Madame Merle further about this revelation, justifying her lack of actions by regarding the matter as being either too important for her to respectfully inquire further, or too insignificant for her curiosity to bother with.
Madame Merle has accurately picked up on Ralph’s covert aversion to her character. He likely disproves of her decadent past behaviors. Once again, Isabel’s lack of sophistication is pronounced; she has not realized the reality of Ralph’s dislike for Merle and does not believe it even when suggested out loud.
During another conversation, Isabel is surprised by Madame Merle’s bitter admission that she would give a great deal to be Isabel’s age again, for “the best part [of her life] is gone, and gone for nothing.” Isabel exclaims that it is not so, for she regards Merle as a model of success. But Merle is adamant that she has failed in her desires and has no real use for the acquired talents Isabel admires so highly.
Again, Isabel naively dismisses wise advice from her elders. Readers later learn that Madame Merle’s unusually pessimistic confession regarding her life’s failures stems from the fact she behaved unethically throughout her marriage and now holds few ties with her illegitimate daughter (Pansy), a relationship kept secret from Pansy and society at large.
Their conversation moves on to the topic of marriage. Madame Merle does not agree with Isabel’s declaration that she does not care for her future husband’s financial means, advising that Isabel should consider marriage seriously and that a man’s prospects are an important consideration in the matter. Madame Merle has a great respect for the opportunities a good income provides.
As per all of Isabel’s family and peers, Madame Merle advises Isabel to become conscious of and act on her vulnerable situation without a husband to provide her with financial security.
The narrator interjects that Isabel has kept the identity of her two ardent suitors a secret from Madame Merle, although the older women is aware that Isabel has rejected at least one advantageous marriage proposal. At this time, Lord Warburton is no longer in the neighborhood, having left for Scotland with his two sisters. Merle has never met the nobleman on her previous visits and therefore has no reason to suspect his identity as one of Isabel’s suitors.
For an unknown reason—perhaps social courtesy—Isabel wishes to hide the identity of her two suitors who have recently proposed marriage. Madame Merle would likely be even more impressed with her new young friend if she became aware of the powerful men who pursue Isabel’s affection.
Madame Merle takes her leave from Gardencourt, citing promises to visit other friends in Europe. She tells Isabel that she is about to visit six various locations in succession, but she is sure to find no one she likes so much as her new friend Isabel.
Madame Merle cements her friendship with Isabel by once again flattering the young woman. The headstrong Isabel has failed to recognize any warning signs in Merle’s conversation and behavior.
Isabel finds herself quite lonely after Madame Merle’s departure from Gardencourt, seeing Mrs. Touchett and Ralph only at meals. Mrs. Touchett tells Isabel that the timing of her invitation to her niece to England is unfortunate. Upon Isabel’s reassurance that she is very happy to have been able to get to know Mr. Touchett, Mrs. Touchett responds that allowing Isabel the opportunity to meet her uncle was not the reason that Mrs. Touchett brought the girl to Europe.
Mrs. Touchett displays her fierce eccentricity when she implies that she invited Isabel to Europe to partake in cultural experiences rather than meet and form bonds with her dying uncle. As usual, the headstrong aunt and niece engage in a combative yet respectful conversation, for they both genuinely care for each other very much.
During her now lonely existence at Gardencourt, Isabel takes a great interest in Henrietta Stackpole’s life in Europe, which she learns of via letters from her friend. The journalist’s newspaper column is not going as well as hoped, and for some strange reason an invitation to visit Lady Pensil has never arrived. However, Harriet is quite pleased by the attentions Mr. Bantling pays her. The pair have decided that Henrietta will visit Paris shortly, and she encourages Isabel to meet her there.
Her recent isolation means that Isabel is now quite happy to renew her friendship with Henrietta despite the journalist’s intense meddling in Isabel’s love life. Again, Henrietta is an agent of action and persuades Isabel to travel to France as soon as possible.
Less than a week after Madame Merle’s departure from Gardencourt, Isabel sits reading distractedly in the library when Ralph enters the room and informs her that Mr. Touchett has died. She exclaims in anguish and holds out her hands to him.
Alongside Isabel’s fierce independence, James represents her as an extremely kind and caring young woman. She is devastated by her uncle’s death and offers comfort to the heartbroken Ralph.