Isabel and Madame Merle have not seen each other for some time, with Merle failing to appear yet again at Isabel’s regular Thursday evening party. The narrative then flashes back in time.
Madame Merle has not been in Rome, but she has been a regular presence in Isabel’s thoughts. The story seems to be setting up the two strong-willed women for a showdown.
During Madame Merle’s last visit to the Osmonds’ house in Rome, which was immediately after Lord Warburton’s abrupt departure for England, Merle enquired about Lord Warburton and suggested that she was looking forward to congratulating Pansy on the couple’s engagement. Isabel felt that Merle was suggesting that Isabel had failed in her duty to persuade the nobleman to marry Pansy. Isabel requests that Merle doesn’t talk further of Warburton, as the family has dwelled enough on his person lately. Madame Merle ignores her request and presses her line of inquiry further. She asks if it is too late to save the desired union between Pansy and Lord Warburton, to which Isabel responds that she must ask the question of Pansy herself.
Madame Merle plays numerous social agendas, trying to criticize Isabel while still scheming to set up Pansy with Lord Warburton. Isabel will not put up with Merle’s games and firmly directs her to speak to Pansy about Warburton. Her interest is piqued by Merle’s excessive interest in Pansy’s marriage prospects.
Isabel realizes what a false friend Madame Merle has been. She has begun to mistrust her ever since she found Osmond sitting too familiarly beside Merle at the Osmond home. Isabel finally feels that is acceptable to criticize the seemingly accomplished woman. She feels she is waking “from a long pernicious dream” and begins to question how much unidentified influence Merle has wielded over Isabel ever since the two women met many years ago at Gardencourt.
Finally, Isabel begins to suspect Madame Merle of deceitful behavior. Isabel’s talk of having been caught up in a harmful “dream” is an apt description for the way she has acted on naïve ideals throughout her life and thus finds herself out of touch with the world and in an unhappy situation.
Madame Merle tells Isabel that Osmond visited her yesterday, confiding in her instead of his wife. She also asserts that Osmond directly insulted Isabel, judging her “severely” in Merle’s company. Isabel is upset by the revelation that Osmond has spoken ill of her aloud, not merely in his thoughts as she suspected. Isabel offers to let Merle know how she judges Osmond, but Merle doesn’t care to hear it, claiming it too “painful” for her to know. For the first time in her life, Isabel finds Madame Merle to be “disagreeable.”
Isabel is appalled by Osmond’s behavior because he has betrayed her trust as her husband by speaking to others about his discontent with Isabel. By contrast, Isabel has gone to great lengths to never speak ill of Osmond despite her marital unhappiness. Isabel is also finding herself becoming increasingly enlightened as to Merle’s true character—Merle is a selfish and manipulative woman, matching Osmond in his Old World decadence.
Desiring the awkward conversation to end, Isabel advises that Madame Merle should not despair over Pansy’s marriage prospects, reminding her of Pansy’s attractiveness.
Isabel’s attempt to shut down conversation with Merle rests on the social convention that beauty is a highly desirable trait to a man searching for a wife.
Madame Merle doesn’t take the hint, continuing to harass Isabel with questions about Lord Warburton. The one truth she desires to learn: did the nobleman change his mind about marrying Pansy of his own accord, or did Isabel intentionally lead him away? If the latter, Merle and Osmond need to know. Isabel grows “pale” at Merle’s charges, suddenly realizing that the familiarity between her husband and Merle is something to be fearful of. She dazedly asks Madame Merle about her intentions; “What have you to do with my husband? […] What have you to do with me?” Merle replies dramatically, “Everything!” Covering her face, Isabel finally realizes that Mrs. Touchett was right in guessing that Madame Merle had wholly orchestrated Isabel’s marriage to Osmond.
Due to Merle’s extreme interest in Isabel’s movements and Pansy’s marriage prospects, coupled with Merle’s familiarity with Osmond, it finally dawns on Isabel that Merle has masterminded Isabel’s marriage to Osmond. Merle’s admission that she has had “everything” to do with Osmond and Isabel’s relationship forces Isabel to confront the reality of Merle’s strange intimacy with Osmond and Isabel’s false freedoms in choosing a husband.
That afternoon, Isabel takes a solitary drive alone, wishing to be far away from her home. She wonders if she can apply the descriptor of “wicked” to Madame Merle, and speculates as to Merle’s intentions for bringing Osmond and Isabel together in marriage. Isabel cannot pinpoint what Merle would gain from their union, but supposes that it must have something to do with her fortune. Isabel considers whether Osmond would let her leave him if she gave him all of her wealth. Isabel ends up feeling pity for her false friend Merle, as she doesn’t believe Merle has achieved what she wanted from Isabel and Osmond’s marriage.
Isabel chooses to escape from Madame Merle and work through her thoughts, rather than confront Merle about her disgraceful behavior. Calling Merle “wicked” is Isabel’s way of expressing her disgust at the morally corrupt widow. Although she is furious at Merle and Osmond, Isabel demonstrates a new kind of wisdom when she ultimately decides that she pities Merle. In this way, she has grown more in the likeness of Mr. Touchett and Ralph, who also pitied those less fortunate than themselves.
Meanwhile, Madame Merle is talking to Osmond at Merle’s home. She accuses Osmond being ungrateful for her help in securing his advantageous marriage to Isabel. Merle additionally blames Osmond for shaping her into a person as wicked as himself, stating that she is so corrupted that she no longer has the ability to cry. She also alleges that Isabel is scared of him, which Osmond denies. He is “indifferent” to her accusations, believing that she reads too much into matters. As he leaves, Madame Merle cries loudly, “Have I been so vile all for nothing?”
Madame Merle, meanwhile, finds no sympathy from Osmond. She finds herself without family or wealth to enjoy life. Merle’s parting comment to Osmond demonstrates her self-loathing at the immoral and lonely creature she has shaped herself into.