The Portrait of a Lady

by

Henry James

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Madame Merle Character Analysis

Madam Merle, one of the novel’s antagonists and Mrs. Touchett’s friend, is similarly an American expatriate and an unconventional woman. She is a widow who lacks fortune, yet manages to spend her time traveling through Europe and the United States by using her social connections. Isabel Archer greatly admires Merle’s charisma and accomplishments when they meet at Gardencourt, and the two form a strong friendship. However, Merle conspires to set up the newly wealthy Isabel with her friend Gilbert Osmond. She wants to see them married, despite their incompatibilities in values and desires. Madame Merle’s strange intentions are later revealed as an attempt to secure Isabel’s inheritance for Osmond and his daughter Pansy’s benefit—it turns out that Pansy is the result of Osmond and Merle’s longtime affair, but her parentage has remained a secret throughout her life. Merle wishes to ensure their future comforts at the expense of Isabel’s happiness. She is therefore a highly ambitious character who understands the desires of others and manipulates them to her advantage. Her relationship with Pansy is ambiguous; Pansy is unaware of her parentage, and despite Merle’s efforts to win favor with the girl as a family friend, Pansy seems to dislike her mother. Madame Merle lacks moral conviction, as demonstrated by her affair with Osmond and her encouraging the union between Isabel and Osmond despite knowing Osmond’s cruelty. Merle is matched with Osmond as the narrative villains who bring down the protagonist. She is also a foil for Isabel, as although both are intent upon achieving personal freedom, Isabel shows the moral high road in that she will not sacrifice her morality and social duty in her pursuit for independence. Furthermore, Isabel pities Merle when she finds out the truth of Pansy’s parentage and the callous scheming that Merle demonstrates.

Madame Merle Quotes in The Portrait of a Lady

The The Portrait of a Lady quotes below are all either spoken by Madame Merle or refer to Madame Merle. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Oxford edition of The Portrait of a Lady published in 2009.
Chapter 19 Quotes

“Even the hardest iron pots have a little bruise, a little hole somewhere. I flatter myself that I’m rather stout, but I must if I must tell you the truth I’ve been shockingly chipped and cracked. I do very well for service yet, because I’ve been cleverly mended.”

Related Characters: Madame Merle (speaker), Isabel Archer
Page Number: 199-200
Explanation and Analysis:

“You should live in your own land; whatever it may be you have your natural place there. If we’re not good Americans we’re certainly poor Europeans; we’ve no natural place here. We’re mere parasites, crawling over the surface; we haven’t our feet in the soil. At least one can know it and not have illusions. A woman perhaps can get on; a woman, it seems to me, has no natural place anywhere; wherever she finds herself she has to remain on the surface and, more or less, to crawl.”

Related Characters: Madame Merle (speaker), Isabel Archer
Page Number: 202-203
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 35 Quotes

The elation of success, which surely now flamed high in Osmond, emitted meanwhile very little smoke for so brilliant a blaze. […] He was immensely pleased with his young lady; Madame Merle had made him a present of incalculable value. […] What could be a happier gift in a companion than a quick, fanciful mind which saved one repetitions and reflected one’s thought on a polished, elegant surface? […] this lady’s intelligence was to be a silver plate, not an earthen one—a plate that he might heap up with ripe fruits, to which it would give a decorative value, so that talk might become for him a sort of served dessert.

Related Characters: Isabel Archer, Gilbert Osmond, Madame Merle
Page Number: 349
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 52 Quotes

Isabel saw it all as distinctly as if it had been reflected in a large clear glass. It might have been a great moment for her, for it might have been a moment of triumph. That Madame Merle has lost her pluck and saw before her the phantom of exposure—this in itself was a revenge, this in itself was almost the promise of a brighter day.

Page Number: 545
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 54 Quotes

“She made a convenience of me.”

“Ah,” cried Mrs. Touchett, “so she did of me! She does of every one.”

Related Characters: Isabel Archer (speaker), Mrs. Touchett (speaker), Gilbert Osmond, Madame Merle
Page Number: 564
Explanation and Analysis:
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Madame Merle Character Timeline in The Portrait of a Lady

The timeline below shows where the character Madame Merle appears in The Portrait of a Lady. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 18
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...herself is revealed to be an American expatriate and friend of Mrs. Touchett’s named Madame Merle. About forty years old, Merle lives in Florence and appears to Isabel a sophisticated and... (full context)
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Isabel goes to ask her cousin about Madame Merle, with Ralph revealing that he was at one time in love with the older woman,... (full context)
Chapter 19
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During the period of Mr. Touchett’s declining health, Isabel and Madame Merle are thrown together by circumstance and form a great friendship. Indeed, “Isabel had never encountered... (full context)
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Isabel spends some time theorizing about Madame Merle’s character, deciding that Merle was once a passionate individual who is now not so “original”... (full context)
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...weather confines the sickly Ralph to his rooms. One day he watches Isabel and Madame Merle walk through the rain together, feeling both regret and reproach toward them. (full context)
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Isabel continues her sincere conversations with Madame Merle. When Isabel theorizes to Merle that the older woman must have once been hurt by... (full context)
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Madame Merle feels that Americans are treated unjustly in European society and cannot live naturally. She offers... (full context)
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Merle also reveals that she feels uncomfortable staying at Gardencourt when Mr. Touchett is so unwell.... (full context)
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During another conversation, Isabel is surprised by Madame Merle’s bitter admission that she would give a great deal to be Isabel’s age again, for... (full context)
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Their conversation moves on to the topic of marriage. Madame Merle does not agree with Isabel’s declaration that she does not care for her future husband’s... (full context)
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...that Isabel has kept the identity of her two ardent suitors a secret from Madame Merle, although the older women is aware that Isabel has rejected at least one advantageous marriage... (full context)
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Madame Merle takes her leave from Gardencourt, citing promises to visit other friends in Europe. She tells... (full context)
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Isabel finds herself quite lonely after Madame Merle’s departure from Gardencourt, seeing Mrs. Touchett and Ralph only at meals. Mrs. Touchett tells Isabel... (full context)
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Less than a week after Madame Merle’s departure from Gardencourt, Isabel sits reading distractedly in the library when Ralph enters the room... (full context)
Chapter 20
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Some weeks later, Madame Merle arrives at the Touchetts’ London house in Winchester Square. She sees a notice that the... (full context)
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When Madame Merle enquires about Ralph’s reaction to Isabel’s newfound fortune, Mrs. Touchett explains that her poorly son... (full context)
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Madame Merle requests to see Isabel, and notes the young woman’s “pale and grave” appearance. Isabel is... (full context)
Chapter 22
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...her through to the next room, where the girl identifies the new visitor as Madame Merle. Merle names the young girl as her friend, Pansy, whom she had regularly visited at... (full context)
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...the villa, and Pansy is obedient but disappointed to the point of tears when Madame Merle instructs her to wait with her while Pansy’s father shows the sisters out. Madame Merle... (full context)
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Osmond sends Pansy outside to pick flowers for Madame Merle, which the young girl happily agrees to. Osmond then addresses Merle’s unheralded visit, while she... (full context)
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Madame Merle reveals that she has come to Florence not only to see Pansy, but to present... (full context)
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Osmond tells Madame Merle that she looks well, recognizing this is likely the result of her “idea” of matchmaking... (full context)
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Osmond checks again with Madame Merle whether Isabel is wealthy. He then agrees to meet Isabel, as long as Ralph Touchett... (full context)
Chapter 23
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Mrs. Touchett invites Madame Merle to stay in Florence. Merle makes sure to tell Isabel she has spoken about her... (full context)
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...Isabel barely takes part in group conversation. She does not want to play into Madame Merle’s expectation Isabel will amuse and charm Osmond, but she inadvertently fascinates him with her silence.... (full context)
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When Madame Merle congratulates Isabel on her captivating behavior, Isabel replies coolly, “that’s more than I intended,” feeling... (full context)
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Ralph goes on to throw barbed insults about Madame Merle, and Isabel charges him with either speaking plainly or holding his tongue. All he will... (full context)
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Ralph imagines that the friendship between Isabel and Madame Merle will not be long-lasting. He does not believe it necessary to take any action regarding... (full context)
Chapter 24
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Isabel accompanies Madame Merle to Gilbert Osmond’s house. Osmond, Pansy, and the Countess Gemini, Osmond’s sister, are all present.... (full context)
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While Madame Merle and the Countess Gemini walk through the garden, Osmond draws Isabel into conversation with Pansy... (full context)
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...is hard work to try to live up to the description that she thinks Madame Merle has given to Osmond of her. (full context)
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Osmond and Isabel wander outside to join Madame Merle and the Countess Gemini. Osmond reveals that his daughter, Pansy, is his greatest happiness in... (full context)
Chapter 25
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Madame Merle and the Countess Gemini converse in the garden while Osmond and Isabel talk inside. The... (full context)
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...her desire to please her father, Osmond, by making tea for the group, which Madame Merle considers and agrees to. The Countess Gemini asks Pansy what she thinks of Isabel; Pansy... (full context)
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When Pansy leaves to offer Osmond and Isabel some tea, the Countess Gemini asks Madame Merle if she is planning on finding a husband for Pansy sometime soon, as she is... (full context)
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The Countess Gemini is more hotheaded than Madame Merle and is often frustrated by Merle’s scheming. Madame Merle reveals that Isabel has recently received... (full context)
Chapter 26
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...her son is of Isabel’s immunity to Osmond’s attentions. She explains her concerns to Madame Merle, who stops Mrs. Touchett from warning Isabel of Osmond’s intentions. Merle promises to help Mrs.... (full context)
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...her marriage. Mrs. Touchett does not want to associate with such an individual, although Madame Merle defends the Countess’s character. (full context)
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Osmond lets Madame Merle know that her plans for his marriage to Isabel are moving along nicely. Merle states... (full context)
Chapter 30
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Returning to Florence with Ralph, Isabel tells Madame Merle of her intention to visit Pansy as per Osmond’s request. Merle warns that she should... (full context)
Chapter 31
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...back to some of the events of Isabel’s recent travels. Isabel had also invited Madame Merle to travel with she and Lilian. After spending three months with her friend, Isabel feels... (full context)
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During their time together, Isabel does realize that she and Madame Merle have different ethical codes. Isabel presumes that her own is superior, describing Merle’s as “values... (full context)
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Upon her return to Italy, Isabel goes to Rome to stay with Madame Merle. There Gilbert Osmond calls upon her each day over a three week period. In April,... (full context)
Chapter 33
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...already has some inkling of the engagement. In fact, Mrs. Touchett has realized that Madame Merle played her friend for a fool, convincing her that she would dissuade Osmond’s interest in... (full context)
Chapter 35
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...for money and will not start doing so now. Of course, his scheming with Madame Merle to win Isabel’s hand in marriage proves otherwise, but his future wife remains unaware of... (full context)
Chapter 36
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...Edward Rosier, the art collector who is also Isabel’s childhood friend, arrives to visit Madame Merle in Rome. Over the summer he met Pansy and fell in love with her immediately.... (full context)
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Madame Merle questions Rosier about his financial means and prospects. At times she ridicules his naïve grasp... (full context)
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...mingle with Pansy. He is fairly certain that Isabel will be more sympathetic than Madame Merle to his cause in pursuing Pansy’s hand in marriage. (full context)
Chapter 37
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Madame Merle arrives to the party and speaks with Osmond. He reveals he was intentionally rude to... (full context)
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Pansy enters the room, trailed by Rosier. Madame Merle is immediately proved wrong—it is clear that Rosier has announced his feelings to Pansy. Osmond... (full context)
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Madame Merle approaches Rosier to communicate her disappointment that he has broken her promise. Rosier then speaks... (full context)
Chapter 38
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Edward Rosier visits Madame Merle the next day and is surprised that she forgives him so easily for breaking his... (full context)
Chapter 39
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...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.... (full context)
Chapter 40
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...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... (full context)
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Interestingly, ever since their marriage, Madame Merle has separated herself from Osmond and Isabel. Isabel remembers that Merle once told her she... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Madame Merle explains that she is visiting for the sole purpose of discussing Edward Rosier’s pursuit of... (full context)
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Madame Merle also states that Rosier is concerned at Lord Warburton’s interest in Pansy. Merle favors the... (full context)
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Madame Merle believes that Isabel holds significant influence over Lord Warburton and can encourage him to propose... (full context)
Chapter 41
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...match between Pansy and Edward Rosier, instead preferring Pansy to marry Lord Warburton as Madame Merle has suggested. (full context)
Chapter 42
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Still seated before the fire, Isabel’s thoughts turn to Osmond and Madame Merle’s strange familiarity earlier that day. She had never known that the two kept in touch,... (full context)
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...retires to bed. Her last thoughts are of the strange interactions between Osmond and Madame Merle earlier that day. (full context)
Chapter 47
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...and Goodwood visiting Rome, Isabel is frequented by strange nighttime dreams of Osmond and Madame Merle together. She is not sure what her imagination is trying to communicate to her. Osmond... (full context)
Chapter 49
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Isabel and Madame Merle have not seen each other for some time, with Merle failing to appear yet again... (full context)
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During Madame Merle’s last visit to the Osmonds’ house in Rome, which was immediately after Lord Warburton’s abrupt... (full context)
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Isabel realizes what a false friend Madame Merle has been. She has begun to mistrust her ever since she found Osmond sitting too... (full context)
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Madame Merle tells Isabel that Osmond visited her yesterday, confiding in her instead of his wife. She... (full context)
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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. (full context)
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Madame Merle doesn’t take the hint, continuing to harass Isabel with questions about Lord Warburton. The one... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Meanwhile, Madame Merle is talking to Osmond at Merle’s home. She accuses Osmond being ungrateful for her help... (full context)
Chapter 51
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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When Isabel questions why Osmond and Madame Merle never married, the Countess Gemini explains that Merle had no wealth to interest Osmond, and... (full context)
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...reveals that she must. She appears physically ill at the revelation of Osmond and Madame Merle’s treachery, having become quite pale and dizzy. (full context)
Chapter 52
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Isabel is shocked to find that Madame Merle is also at the convent. Merle tries to justify her visit to Pansy, acknowledging that... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Isabel is leaving the convent when Madame Merle requests to speak with her again. After checking whether Isabel is fond of her cousin... (full context)
Chapter 53
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...future. With time, though, she uses her recent conversations with Osmond, the Countess Gemini, Madame Merle, and Pansy to begin making some connections between previous events. (full context)
Chapter 54
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...an idea that Isabel rejects. Mrs. Touchett also asks Isabel how she feels about Madame Merle; Isabel replies that she does not like her as much she previously did, but it... (full context)