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Madame Merle has come to Florence at the invitation of Mrs. Touchett to spend a month with her at her house, the Palazzo Crescentini. She speaks to Isabel again about Gilbert Osmond, telling her that he is one of the greatest men in Europe. Isabel spends her mornings with Ralph, who enjoys taking her through the great monuments of Venice. Isabel loves coming back home to the Palazzo Crescentini. One day Gilbert Osmond comes to visit Madame Merle and Isabel meets him. She doesn’t speak hardly at all during his entire visit. Isabel finds that there is "something in the visitor that checked her and held her in suspense." She has the idea that she must first find out about him before she produces an impression of her own. He is not handsome, but fine, like an old art work; his voice is fine also, but not sweet. When he leaves, he asks Isabel if she will come to visit him next week. He would like her to meet his daughter and see his home. When he is gone, Madame Merle tells her she was perfectly charming and that she couldn’t have asked for any other kind of behavior. Isabel is unaccountably irritated, and says she is under no obligation to charm Gilbert Osmond.
Isabel is interested to find out what Ralph thinks of Gilbert Osmond. Ralph says he is "a vague, unexplained American" who has been living in Italy for thirty years. He knows nothing of Mr. Osmond’s background, but thinks the man looks like some kind of "prince who has abdicated in a fit of fastidiousness and has been in a state of disgust ever since." Ralph says that Mr. Osmond’s great dread of vulgarity is his "special line" and his only line. She tells Isabel he once met Mr. Osmond’s sister, who is married to a Count, and found her to be nicer than Mr. Osmond, but impossible, and someone Isabel should not meet. When Isabel prompts him to say more, he tells her that if she falls in love with Mr. Osmond, she won’t listen to anything he says about the man anyway. Then he enjoins her to judge everything and everyone for herself.
They move on to a discussion of Madame Merle. Isabel tries to get Ralph to say why he doesn’t like her. He explains that Madame Merle is too perfect. She seems inhuman in not having any faults whatsoever. She’s too controlled and too complete. Ralph thinks about Isabel’s spending so much time with Madame Merle. He thinks nothing will harm Isabel in the connection and feels that one day Isabel would understand something about Madame Merle that would make her relax her interest in the older woman if not break from her completely.
Isabel’s first meeting with Gilbert Osmond demonstrates in Henry James’ usual oblique way that something big is in the works. Instead of acting her usual self with him, Isabel is silent and withdrawn. Since the reader has been informed of the plot-- to get Isabel to marry Gilbert Osmond--this chapter is full of dramatic irony. The reader sees Isabel falling into their trap perfectly. She has few hints that something is wrong. One of these hints is her instinctive displeasure at Madame Merle’s praise of how she behaved in front of Gilbert Osmond. Isabel recoils from this praise sensing that it implies that she should be on show for some superior. The second hint is Ralph’s clear dislike of both Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond. Isabel is too innocent to listen carefully to Ralph’s subtext. He is too cultivated a man to warn her openly. He does so only by hints and he withdraws every hint at direct questioning.