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 52 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
With the help of her maid, Isabel arranges to leave Rome for England to see her cousin Ralph on his deathbed. But before she departs for Gardencourt, she visits Pansy at the convent.
Isabel’s visit to Pansy mirrors her visit to the girl after Osmond told Isabel he loved her. Now, though, Pansy is not such a vulnerable young girl; she is intelligent and can assert her own will.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Isabel is shocked to find that Madame Merle is also at the convent. Merle tries to justify her visit to Pansy, acknowledging that she should have asked for permission from Osmond and Isabel, but she soon realizes that Isabel knows the truth of Merle’s relationship to Osmond and Pansy. Despite a quavering voice, she talks in the usual fashion about Pansy’s experiences at the convent.
Madame Merle slips into her usual mode of fabrication to explain her interest in Pansy. Even when she realizes that Isabel now knows the truth of Pansy’s parentage, Merle relies on Isabel conforming to social propriety in continuing to talk on expected topics.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Art and Morality Theme Icon
Isabel knows that she could lord her newfound knowledge over Madame Merle in “a great moment […] of triumph.” But she chooses to say nothing to Madame Merle, except that she is shortly to depart alone for England. Her near silence seems punishment enough for Madame Merle, who is helpless in her dishonor. Isabel announces her intention to wish Pansy goodbye, leaving Merle sitting in the convent parlor.
Isabel’s new knowledge gives her control of the situation. Isabel’s noble response to Madame Merle’s treachery renders Merle a pathetic figure—quite the opposite of the sophisticated and talented Merle that Isabel originally admired so much.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
Art and Morality Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Madame Catherine takes Isabel to see Pansy, calling the young woman a “precious charge” who will be pleased to see Isabel. As soon as the nun leaves them together, Pansy buries her face in Isabel’s dress with happiness at seeing her. Isabel soothes her stepdaughter and admires her room, before revealing that she is leaving for England. Pansy hides her reaction to this news, but then begs Isabel not to leave her in the convent, suggesting she can go with her to England. Despite Isabel’s heartfelt desire to allow Pansy’s wishes, Pansy decides to obey Osmond’s orders and remain faithfully in the convent.
With her return to the convent, Pansy also seems to have returned to her former meek childhood character. Despite her opposing desires, Pansy decides to dutifully act in accordance with her father’s will.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Get the entire The Portrait of a Lady LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Portrait of a Lady PDF
Pansy admits to Isabel that she sometimes fears both Osmond and Madame Merle. Isabel gently rebukes her for saying so. She must say goodbye to Pansy, but promises that she will return. Pansy repeats her dislike of Madame Merle, with Isabel again insisting that she must not say such things. Pansy tells her stepmother that it is much easier to bear her father and Madame Merle’s expectations when Isabel is also around.
Isabel’s departing promise may come back to haunt her in future, for she is ethically beholden to Pansy but not Osmond.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Art and Morality Theme Icon
Isabel is leaving the convent when Madame Merle requests to speak with her again. After checking whether Isabel is fond of her cousin Ralph, Merle suggests that Isabel has Ralph to thank for her wealth and subsequent marriage. Madame Merle is momentarily delighted at surprising Isabel so, but Isabel retorts that it is Madame Merle she has to thank. The older woman states that although Isabel is unhappy, Merle is unhappy to an even higher degree. Isabel believes Madam Merle, and tells her that she never wants to see her again. As Isabel exits the convent, Madame Merle states quietly that she will move to America.
Madame Merle cannot help her nature in wanting to exercise power over Isabel, insulting Ralph and simultaneously trying to shift the blame of Isabel’s unhappy marriage away from Merle herself. Isabel again acts nobly, taking the high road while being very clear that she will not stand for Merle’s manipulative behaviors any longer. Merle’s promise that she will move to America effectively removes Merle from the complex relationship between Osmond and Isabel.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Art and Morality Theme Icon