The Portrait of a Lady

by

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady: Chapter 51 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Although Osmond does not banish the Countess Gemini from his house, she feels that her hospitality in Rome is vulnerable. A week after this episode, Mrs. Touchett sends Isabel a telegram to let her know that Ralph is nearing his death and would like to see his cousin if possible. Isabel tells Osmond that she needs to travel immediately to Gardencourt, but he does not allow her to. He thinks she is visiting Ralph just to spite him. If she disobeys his wishes, he informs her that he will view it as a “calculated opposition” to her husband. Isabel suggests that it is Osmond who is “calculating” in his opposition of Isabel.
Isabel’s fears of Osmond denying her travel to Gardencourt are realized. Despite their air of civility, Osmond and Isabel’s interactions are becoming more spiteful. Considering their history, it is clear that Osmond is the more “calculating” of the pair, having schemed his way into marrying Isabel for her money.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Osmond claims that Isabel cares greatly for her cousin because Ralph does not give weight to her marriage with Osmond. Osmond contends that he, on the other hand, takes their marriage very seriously and values honor above all else. Isabel exits the room, infuriated.
Isabel is unable to deal with the enormity of Osmond’s hypocrisy in claiming to honor their marriage. As with Madame Merle, Isabel chooses to take leave of Osmond rather than confront him.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Art and Morality Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Isabel talks to the Countess Gemini about her predicament. The Countess comforts Isabel somewhat. She also thinks of the consequence of Isabel mourning Ralph without having wished him a proper goodbye.
Originally a suspicious character of questionable morals, the Countess is now one of the few people to whom Isabel can talk regarding her precarious marriage.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Art and Morality Theme Icon
The Countess Gemini then encourages Isabel to defy Osmond’s instructions by traveling to Gardencourt. She also decides to reveal an enormous truth to Isabel about Osmond and Madame Merle’s past: Pansy is their child and the result of a long-time affair. Pansy was in fact born to Madame Merle after Osmond’s first wife died, but the parents have kept the truth a secret because of the public scandal it would cause. Pansy has no idea that Merle is her mother, and Monsieur Merle was similarly unaware of his wife’s deceit due to his long absences from home.
The Countess’s revelation is the final element that completes Isabel’s understanding of the realities of her marriage. Osmond and Merle’s illicit affair is so scandalous that it would ruin both of them—and Pansy—if the secret were made public. Isabel has an important choice ahead of her regarding her marriage to Osmond and her handling of this powerful information.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Art and Morality Theme Icon
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Shocked, Isabel asks why the Countess Gemini is revealing this secret to her now. The Countess merely claims that she is tired of Isabel not knowing. Isabel weeps openly and feels increased pity for Madame Merle. The Countess Gemini is surprised by Isabel’s compassionate reaction. Isabel also wonders if Osmond has been faithful to Isabel during their marriage, with the Countess Gemini indicating that he and Madame Merle were no longer lovers by the time he met Isabel.
Isabel again pities Madame Merle, for the secrecy she lives with and the tragedy of Pansy not knowing her parentage. Isabel seems to have gained everything Merle wanted—marriage, wealth, and a daughter. Isabel’s questioning the Countess about Osmond’s potential current adultery is unsurprising considering his betrayal of his first wife and his lack of loyalty to Isabel in confiding in Merle about their marriage.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Art and Morality Theme Icon
When Isabel questions why Osmond and Madame Merle never married, the Countess Gemini explains that Merle had no wealth to interest Osmond, and that she fell out of love with him quickly and desired to one day marry a “great man.”
Osmond’s selfish greed resulted in the collapse of his romantic relationship with Merle. Osmond is certainly not the “great man” Merle wanted to marry, having been identified from the outset by Ralph as a very “small man.”
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Before Isabel takes her leave of the Countess Gemini, the Countess asks if Isabel still plans to visit Ralph against Osmond’s will. With an air of “infinite sadness” Isabel reveals that she must. She appears physically ill at the revelation of Osmond and Madame Merle’s treachery, having become quite pale and dizzy.
The foundations of Isabel’s world—her marriage and her previous identity in prioritizing her independence—have been rocked to their core. Her extreme sorrow may arise from the knowledge that she is bonded to a man as despicable as Osmond, or because her beloved cousin is dying.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon