The Portrait of a Lady

by

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady: Chapter 40 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
During her three years of marriage, Isabel has had ample time to consider her family and friends’ previous warnings about getting involved with Osmond. She has particularly reflected on Mrs. Touchett’s accusation that Madame Merle orchestrated the union between Osmond and Isabel. Isabel thinks that even if Merle persuaded Osmond to pursue Isabel, she certainly wasn’t able to influence Isabel into accepting Osmond’s marriage proposal, that being Isabel’s choice alone.
Isabel has reconciled herself to the fact that her family’s previous advice was correct and her decision to marry Osmond was a poor one. However, she is unwilling to believe Madame Merle’s involvement in orchestrating the marriage because of her self-important certainty that she made the decision to marry of her own volition.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Interestingly, ever since their marriage, Madame Merle has separated herself from Osmond and Isabel. Isabel remembers that Merle once told her she did not want to seem overly familiar with Isabel’s husband. Isabel decided long ago that she no longer admired Merle as a role model.
Isabel is not aware of the extent of Madame Merle’s betrayal in setting her up for an unhappy marriage, but she has recognized that Merle is not an admirable role model. Marriage has certainly opened Isabel up to the realities of her situation and some of the truths in the world around her.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The narrator notes that Isabel and Pansy are rarely apart. One day, one month after Ralph and Lord Warburton have returned to Rome, Isabel and Pansy return to their home from a walk together. When Pansy retires upstairs, Isabel is surprised to see that Madame Merle is visiting the Osmond residence in Rome. She is greatly shocked that Merle is standing in the drawing room while Osmond remains seated, a breakdown in social convention that demonstrates the pair’s over-familiarity—the host should always remain standing until his guest is seated. Isabel also notices that there is too familiar a silence between the two. Osmond leaps to his feet when he realizes Isabel is present.
Finally, Isabel becomes aware that there is something more than friendship between Osmond and Madame Merle. Osmond realizes his social indiscretion immediately, hastily jumping away from his over-familiar position with Merle. A man sitting in the presence of a woman who is not his wife may not seem unusual in modern times, but in Victorian Europe this was a highly improper breach of etiquette.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Art and Morality Theme Icon
Madame Merle explains that she is visiting for the sole purpose of discussing Edward Rosier’s pursuit of Pansy’s hand in marriage. She reveals that Rosier often visits her to request her help in facilitating the union. Merle asks if Isabel can speak to Pansy to see if she has real feelings for Rosier.
Madame Merle tries to explain her visit as one of concern for Pansy’s welfare. In requesting Isabel to speak to Pansy to discern her true feelings for Rosier, Merle recognizes that Isabel holds the closest relationship with Pansy. There is perhaps some jealousy from Merle in this regard, although Isabel is of course unaware that Merle is Pansy’s mother.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Art and Morality Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
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Madame Merle also states that Rosier is concerned at Lord Warburton’s interest in Pansy. Merle favors the potential marriage for Pansy with Warburton as an advantageous one, which Isabel vaguely agrees with.
Madame Merle prefers Lord Warburton as a suitor for Pansy because he is wealthier and possesses greater social importance than Rosier.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Madame Merle believes that Isabel holds significant influence over Lord Warburton and can encourage him to propose to Pansy; Isabel is surprised to learn that Madame Merle is aware of Warburton’s prior marriage proposal to Isabel. Merle suggests that Isabel owes it to Lord Warburton to ensure he finds happiness in a marriage to Pansy, suggesting “reparations” are in order. Isabel is again vague in her answer, but Madame Merle is enthused by Isabel’s response and “embraced her more tenderly than might be expected” before exiting the house.
Madame Merle has no qualms about using Lord Warburton’s previous passionate feelings for Isabel to influence his courtship of Pansy. Isabel likely feels torn in duty, as by using her leverage over Lord Warburton to encourage his feelings for a woman who loves another man she steers Pansy away from a love match but toward a socially advantageous match.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon