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MonkeyNotes-Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
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Chapter 19

Isabel and Madame Merle spend a great deal of time together. Isabel often thinks that she reveals too much of herself to Madame Merle. She thinks Madame Merle has the great talent of knowing how to feel. Madame Merle, on the other hand, says that now that she is forty, she doesn’t know how to feel any more, but does know how to judge. She tells Isabel that she can’t wait to find out what life makes of her and that she’s sure life might pull her about horribly, but surely will not break her up. Isabel likes to talk to Madame Merle and Madame Merle likes to keep the topic of conversation focused on Isabel.

The weather gets to be so bad that Ralph Touchett can’t go outside. He stands at the window and watches Isabel taking daily walks with Madame Merle. Isabel finds everything about Madame Merle worthy of emulation. She can’t help but realize that Henrietta Stackpole would not at all approve of her new friend. Isabel thinks about the "aristocratic position" as one in which a person is in a better position for appreciating people than they are for appreciating her or him. She thinks Madame Merle has achieved such a position. She finds Madame Merle eminently talented. She is always doing something very well, playing the piano, painting, writing, doing embroidery, or talking. The only fault Isabel can find is that she is not natural. She seems to be a purely social being. Mrs. Touchett, however, tells Isabel that Serena Merle doesn’t have a single fault. Madame Merle answers that for Mrs. Touchett, not having a fault means showing up to dinner on time, not bringing too much luggage when visiting, and not getting sick while visiting.


Madame Merle at points tells about her own ruined hopes. She tells Isabel she was born before the French Revolution and that she belongs to the "old, old world." She says Americans who live in Europe are displaced, like parasites. She adds that women do better than men since they don’t have any natural place anyway. She takes Ralph Touchett as an example. His illness is his career. Without it, he would be a sad case of displaced humanity. She next introduces a compatriot who lives in Italy, Gilbert Osmond. He is also a man who has no occupation, but he does it better than Ralph. He paints water colors and he loves his daughter. Madame Merle promises to introduce Isabel to him some day. One day Isabel asks Madame Merle about the antipathy she has sensed between her and Ralph. Madame Merle says Ralph doesn’t like her, but she feels nothing strongly about him. She calls it "an antipathy of nature." Isabel wonders about this, but even though she likes to pursue knowledge, she also has a tendency to shrink from finding out unpleasant things.

Madame Merle tells Isabel that she feels that she has failed in her ambitions. She doesn’t have a husband, a child, a fortune, or a position. Isabel objects that she has friends, but Madame Merle is not willing to accept this as an accomplishment. Isabel says that in her mind, success means seeing some dream of one’s youth come true and that she has already seem this happen. Madame Merle scoffs at this idea. She can only think Isabel must mean that some young man has proposed marriage to her. She says she too has refused proposals of marriage, and perhaps should have made one more refusal if she had done rightly by herself. She tells Isabel the self is in one’s possessions. Isabel disagrees and argues that the self is separate from what society clothes one in. Isabel never tells Madame Merle directly about Lord Warburton or Caspar Goodwood. She is glad that Lord Warburton is away with his sisters.

Madame Merle finally leaves Gardencourt to go visit some friends who are expecting her. When she leaves, she and Isabel feel close. Isabel is then left on her own. She keeps up her correspondence with Henrietta Stackpole. Henrietta never got the invitation she was expecting from Lady Pensil. She is planning to go to Paris escorted by Mr. Bantling. Isabel tells Ralph all about Henrietta’s goings on. He enjoys hearing the news.

One afternoon, Isabel is in the library when she sees the doctor leave in his carriage. The house is hushed and then Ralph comes into the library. He tells Isabel his father has died.

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