The Portrait of a Lady

by

Henry James

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Portrait of a Lady can help.

The Portrait of a Lady: Chapter 23 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mrs. Touchett invites Madame Merle to stay in Florence. Merle makes sure to tell Isabel she has spoken about her to Gilbert Osmond, although gives no indication of her secret hope that she desires to one day see the two married. Isabel’s curiosity is piqued regarding the history between Merle and Osmond, but Merle speaks of nothing but a long friendship with the American gentleman.
Madame Merle’s deception is aided by European Old World charm and sophistication; Isabel does not think to question Merle’s story or motives.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
Gilbert Osmond visits at Mrs. Touchett’s Florence home. Isabel barely takes part in group conversation. She does not want to play into Madame Merle’s expectation Isabel will amuse and charm Osmond, but she inadvertently fascinates him with her silence. Before he leaves, Osmond invited her to visit his villa with Madame Merle and suggests he would like Isabel to meet his daughter, Pansy.
Isabel accidentally plays into Madame Merle’s desires when the young woman attracts Osmond’s interest by largely removing herself from the social conversation. This is not the first time that Isabel’s fiercely independent spirit will steer her toward disaster, in this case marriage to the wicked Osmond.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
When Madame Merle congratulates Isabel on her captivating behavior, Isabel replies coolly, “that’s more than I intended,” feeling irritated with her friend Merle for the first time. Merle blushes with embarrassment at Isabel’s unexpected displeasure, but says she thought that Isabel liked Osmond.
Isabel once again asserts her independence over her peers despite their higher social status. The sophisticated and older Madame Merle feels put in her place by her younger friend.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
Isabel asks Ralph what he knows about Gilbert Osmond. Ralph can only say that he is a mysterious American who has lived in Italy for the past thirty years, and that he believes Osmond dreads “vulgar” tastes. However, Ralph advises Isabel that she must make judgments for herself without relying on other people’s opinions.
In a growing pattern, Isabel is curious about Gilbert Osmond and asks Ralph for his opinion on the man. Ralph doesn’t know much except that Osmond prefers a lifestyle of fine tastes as per European cultural traditions.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Art and Morality Theme Icon
Get the entire The Portrait of a Lady LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Portrait of a Lady PDF
Ralph goes on to throw barbed insults about Madame Merle, and Isabel charges him with either speaking plainly or holding his tongue. All he will say is that Merle is too ambitious and that her merits are exaggerated; overall, he feels pity for Merle’s failures to achieve her life desires.
Again, Ralph makes mysterious attacks on Madame Merle’s character. Similar to his attitude toward Lord Warburton, Ralph pities Merle for her flaws. The unconventional Isabel bosses around her cousin, rashly commanding Ralph to reveal his issues with Merle or be silent on the matter.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Ralph imagines that the friendship between Isabel and Madame Merle will not be long-lasting. He does not believe it necessary to take any action regarding their friendship, as he assumes Isabel will discover Merle’s true nature in time. Until then, it is unlikely that Isabel will be hurt.
Ralph makes a surprisingly poor character judgment in this moment, wrongly believing that Isabel will discover the truth of the devious Madame Merle before any harm befalls his cousin.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon