The Portrait of a Lady

by

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady: Chapter 39 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrator shifts to the topic of Ralph and Isabel’s relationship, explaining that Ralph never spoke to Isabel about his objections to Gilbert Osmond again.  He suspects that his voiced objections to Isabel about her husband means that the cousins can never be friends again. Consequently, Ralph has barely seen Isabel since she got married. He reflects on her wedding, a quiet and simple affair at a small American chapel with Ralph, his mother, Pansy, and the Countess Gemini in attendance. Madame Merle sent her apologies, unable to leave Rome, and Isabel’s friend Henrietta Stackpole was not invited. In fact, Henrietta wrote forcefully to Isabel stating that if invited, she would have attended to witness the marriage and to criticize it.
Isabel’s state of mind is still denied from the reader, with Ralph now relating his version of events throughout this chapter. Ralph has largely removed himself from Isabel’s life since her marriage to Osmond, believing that his dislike of Osmond means Isabel will not want to see her cousin regularly if at all. Henrietta has also voiced her displeasure at Isabel’s choice of husband.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Upon meeting Isabel again after Lord Warburton’s entry to her Thursday evening party, Ralph realizes he should not have given up on Isabel’s friendship so easily. He “had played the wrong card” and “lost the game,” and Isabel now “always wears a mask” around him. Ralph is also keenly aware of Isabel’s change in disposition; she is no longer a curious, spirited, and carefree young woman, but instead an indifferent married lady who has a “fixed and mechanical” serenity permanently painted on her face. The relationship between the cousins is now stilted and formal. Ralph concludes that Isabel no longer represents freedom—she represents her husband. He also concludes that Osmond is a man who has pretended to live by admirable values, but this was always a façade. Instead Osmond lives for admiration from others and his resulting feelings of superiority.
Ralph is shocked by the change that marriage has brought about for Isabel. In his foolish treatment of Isabel as an experiment to be set free on Europe with newfound wealth, Ralph has made a huge mistake. Isabel now resembles Osmond more than her old free-spirited self; indeed, she wears a mask as her husband did when courting her. Ralph laments the loss of the natural and carefree Isabel into this careful lady who is “mechanical” in her behaviors, likely calculating how she can best hide her unhappiness from the world while abiding by her new marriage’s responsibilities. Osmond, meanwhile, has dropped his mask since marriage and is revealed as wicked man that the Countess Gemini had previously alluded to.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Art and Morality Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Osmond has never considered Ralph as a threat. However, once when Ralph overstayed his welcome in Rome, Isabel’s husband protested. Ralph left so he wouldn’t cause further trouble between the couple. This time, Ralph decides to stay in Rome instead of moving on to visit Sicily as intended. He suggests he may have to defend his cousin from her husband’s arguments.
Ralph is so affected by Isabel’s changed persona that he resolves to stay in Rome to defend Isabel’s happiness, becoming an obstacle that Osmond will have to negotiate.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Later, Ralph asks Lord Warburton how his relationship with Pansy is developing. Ralph wonders if the nobleman is interested in getting close to Pansy merely so that he is also nearer to Isabel. Warburton is angry at Ralph’s assumption. But the nobleman does wonder what Isabel will think of his interest in Pansy.
It is difficult to know whether Lord Warburton is truly attracted to Pansy, or if he merely wants to use her to get closer to the married Isabel.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
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