Portrait of a Lady Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


Portrait o a Lady: Chapters 22-24

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Summary – Chapters Twenty Two, Twenty Three and Twenty Four
Chapter Twenty Two begins in Florence in May and it is now some six months after the death of Mr. Touchett. There is an extended description of a villa and a girl placing herself before a painting on an easel. Two nuns are present as well as a gentleman aged 40. The girl is his daughter and has been at the convent since she was small, and has just returned now.
Madame Merle visits just before the nuns leave and Pansy, the girl, says how she came to see her at the convent and the last time she told her to come away. As the nuns leave, Madame Merle tells Pansy to stay with her as her father shows them out and it is clear the girl has been ‘impregnated with the idea of submission’. After asking if she will miss Mother Catherine, Madame Merle says perhaps someday she will have another mother. Pansy says she does not think this is necessary as she had 30 at the convent.
The girl’s father, Gilbert Osmond, returns and he says her life is his ambition and wonders if Pansy understands. He sends his daughter to the garden to pick some flowers for Madame Merle and Madame Merle then tells him that her ambitions are principally for him. She calls him indolent and heatless and he agrees. She says she wants him to do something for her, despite his indolence, and it involves making a new acquaintance in Florence. She is referring to Isabel, but he says he does not want to know any dingy people. She tells him Isabel fills all his requirements and he asks what she wants him to do with her. She tells him that she wants him to marry her. Osmond says he does not understand her ambition.
He agrees to meet Isabel and she says she will keep Mrs. Touchett out of the way. He responds that he does not object to her, but refers to Ralph as ‘a good deal of a donkey’.
The chapter ends with Madame Merle noting that Pansy has not come back with the flowers and murmurs, ‘she does not like me’.
In Chapter Twenty Three, Madame Merle is staying with Mrs. Touchett on her invitation and has spoken to Isabel about her meeting Osmond. She does not speak as plainly to Isabel as she did to Osmond, but this may be because Isabel showed no resistance to the idea. It is also because Madame Merle puts him near the top of her list of her many friends. Isabel wonders about the history between the two, but Madame Merle hints at nothing but a long friendship.
When Osmond visits, Isabel takes little part in the conversation and sits as if she is at a play. She has ‘perverse unwillingness to glitter by arrangement’. Before he leaves, he invites her to his home, with Madame Merle, and says he would be happy for her to know his daughter, and she accepts.
She expects Madame Merle to remonstrate with her after he has left because she was quiet, but instead she says she was charming and ‘just as one would have wished you’. For the first time, Isabel feels displeasure with her ‘ally’ and says coldly, ‘that’s more than I intended’ and ‘I’m under no obligation that I know of to charm Mr Osmond’. Madame Merle flushes and as it is not her habit to retract she says she does not speak for him, ‘poor man’, but for Isabel as she thought she liked him.
Isabel asks Ralph about Osmond and knows his judgements may be distorted by his own trials. He says he knows little of Osmond, but thinks he has ‘a great dread of vulgarity’. He says that is his ‘special line’ and has no other that he knows of. Ralph then tells her to judge everyone and everything for herself and not mind what people say about her either. When he then insinuates things about Madame Merle, Isabel asks him to be frank or say nothing. He says he exaggerates his respect for this woman as her merits are exaggerated by herself. He does not mean in the vulgar sense, but that she ‘pushes the search for perfection too far – that her merits are in themselves overstrained’. He also thinks she is overly ambitious and her visible accomplishments are ‘far below her secret measure’.
The chapter ends with Ralph supposing that the friendship between Isabel and Madame Merle should be made the best of and will not last forever. He believes it is not probable that Isabel will be injured.
Isabel and Madame Merle visit Osmond in Chapter Twenty Four. Pansy and Osmond’s sister (the Countess Gemini) are inside and to ‘a casual view’ Isabel thinks the Countess shows no depths. She also notes that ‘perfect simplicity was not the badge of his family’ and this includes Pansy who looks like she is about to partake of her first communion.
Osmond exerts himself to talk to Isabel and entertain her and Madame Merle and the Countess go in the garden. Osmond discusses his art and Isabel thinks of him as a specimen apart from other people she knows. She also thinks he is original without being eccentric and has ‘never met a person of so fine a grain’. She takes care with what she says to avoid sounding ‘grotesque’ in her judgements.
They go outside to join the others and he tells her his only plan was to live as quietly as possible, which is what he is doing. He calls it a ‘wilful renunciation’. She finds she scarcely understands him as he seems so reserved and yet he confides in her.
Analysis – Chapters Twenty Two, Twenty Three and Twenty Four
Gilbert Osmond, his sister and daughter are introduced in Chapter Twenty Two and it becomes evident that Madame Merle has plans for him to marry Isabel. This is planned without Isabel’s knowledge and reveals duplicity on the part of both Osmond and Madame Merle. When she says that she wishes he was not so heartless, she also reveals that she is aware of this man’s shortfall and is still prepared to inflict him on Isabel for her own ambition.
Madame Merle has admitted this aspect of her personality previously and Ralph tells Isabel about this as well. It is elemental to the characterization of Isabel that she does not listen to the warnings she is given. This highlights the provinciality of her background, as a representative of an innocent abroad, and also makes her a cipher for expanding on the theme of the young adventuress searching for new experiences.


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