Summary – Chapters Forty, Forty One and Forty Two
In Chapter Forty, Isabel is learning to keep her troubles to herself when speaking to Madame Merle and has begun to notice how she exaggerates, which is what Ralph pointed out to her. Madame Merle is also candid in saying she does not want to meddle in Isabel’s married life even though she has known Osmond for many years.
Isabel has had three years to think about Mrs. Touchett’s claim that Madame Merle had ‘made’ her marriage. Although she is now disappointed, she does not want to take ‘petty revenge’ on her and takes responsibilities for her own actions.
The narrative shifts to how Isabel is rarely seen without Pansy. A month after Ralph came back to Rome, Isabel and Pansy return from their walk and while Pansy goes upstairs to her room, Isabel notices Madame Merle and Osmond in the drawing room and there is a ‘familiar silence’ between them that is new to Isabel. When they notice her, he gets up for a walk and Madame Merle tells her she has come because she has something on her mind. She speaks about Rosier’s frequent visits.
As they talk, Madame Merle accuses Isabel of being dry and the conversation turns to Lord Warburton. Madame Merle says it is in Isabel’s power to influence him and Isabel asks how she knows this. Madame Merle says that Mrs. Touchett told her that he proposed, and then puts forward the idea that Isabel can make ‘reparations’ by helping him marry someone else. Isabel’s reply is ambiguous, but Madame Merle appears to see it as a good omen.
In Chapter Forty One, Isabel appears to be as cynical as her husband as she thinks that although Pansy likes Rosier, this can be sorted out and the match with Lord Warburton will please her husband. She does not account for Pansy’s tenacity, though, and thinks she will simply let go of Rosier.
Lord Warburton has paid a visit and Osmond returns half an hour after he leaves. He is quiet and Isabel has learned to be cautious with him. He says how little conversation they have now and when he refers to Rosier as an old friend of hers this has an effect: ‘He had a way of expressing contempt for them which fortified her loyalty to them, even when, as in the present case, they were in themselves insignificant.’
She also knows not to take anything for granted with Osmond and waits for him to be explicit about Lord Warburton being a good match for Pansy. He says Pansy wishes ‘above all’ to please and would like to be a great lady. Isabel warns that Pansy may not sit perfectly still if she loses Rosier, but he appears not to heed this.
She then tells him to be patient with Lord Warburton as Englishmen are shy. He points out that he was not so when he ‘made love’ to her and adds that she must have a great deal of influence over him and could ‘bring him to the point’. She is offended by these statements, and he tells her to think it over and remember how much he counts on her.
In Chapter Forty Two, she does not answer Osmond as she cannot trust herself to speak. She sits alone far into the night and thinks of many things that have happened and been said. She wonders, for example, if Lord Warburton still thinks more of her than other women and is repulsed by the idea of bringing him and Pansy together. She breaks out of this labyrinth finally by deciding to wait until Lord Warburton proves he is not disinterested ‘as he need be’.
She then thinks of when she saw Osmond and Madame Merle together and how her husband has the faculty ‘for making everything wither that he touched, spoiling everything for her that he looked at’. She accuses him of one thing: ‘She knew of no wrong he had done; he was not violent, he was not cruel: she simply believed he hated her.’ He knows he cannot change her and she sees that when they met she effaced herself, and made herself small and had only seen half of his nature then: ‘She saw the full moon now – she saw the whole man’.
She now believes her money was a burden and lightened her conscience by making it over ‘to the man with the best taste in the world’. She then questions this and thinks ‘a certain ardour took possession of her’. She remembers the first sign of his hate when he told her she had too many ideas and must get rid of them. He had said something similar before they married and now sees this as portentous: ‘He had really meant it – he would have liked her to have nothing of her own but her pretty appearance.’
Living with him is, for Isabel, like living in ‘a house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation’. She sees his egotism as lying hidden ‘like a serpent in a bank of flowers’ and thinks he looks down on the world to feel his superiority. He adheres to traditions and expects her to as well and this is how she began to feel suffocated. Before today, he has not spoken to her for a week and she is certain that this is because he is angry with her for visiting Ralph.
Talking to Ralph is like a lamp in the darkness for her and she comes to think of him as a brother. She conceals her misery from him as an act of devotion. He smiles at this form of consideration where she flaunts her happiness in his face, ‘but he forgave her for having forgiven him’. She does not want him to know she is unhappy, ‘that was the great thing’. She goes to bed at four in the morning and remembers again the vision of her husband with Madame Merle, ‘unconsciously and familiarly associated’.
Analysis – Chapters Forty, Forty One and Forty Two
It is in Chapter Forty that Isabel gains some insight into the relationship between Osmond and Madame Merle when she sees them alone together in the drawing room. Even though from all outward appearance the scene is completely innocent, it depicts a wordless, actionless intimacy between them. By Osmond sitting and Madame Merle standing, the role of host and guest is not present and it is obvious that Madame Merle feels very much at home there.
The result of this recognition also partakes of the Jamesian subtlety. Instead of breaking the social code and speaking to the two of them, Isabel responds with control and reserve.
The disintegration of Isabel’s marriage is laid bare in Chapter Forty Two as she considers how she believes her husband hates her. She accuses him of no crime such as violence, but reveals her view that he wanted her as just a beautiful object without ideas.
This perspective of Osmond allows the novel to criticize the institution of marriage further and it is of interest that he is American, and of the New World, but is a great stalwart for tradition. As Isabel recounts, he expects the same of her too and this has led her to feel suffocated. His desire for the maintenance of standards and traditions are seen to be greater than those born into such a system (for example Lord Warburton) and it is as though he is attempting to reconcile his place of birth with his love of the ‘fine’ by negating his own history.
The Portrait of a Lady: Chapters 40-42
Summary – Chapters Forty, Forty One and Forty Two