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MonkeyNotes-Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
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Chapter 40

Since Isabelís marriage, Madame Merle has been almost constantly absent from Rome. Isabel had at first wished things were different since she wished to have Madame Merleís advice about how to cope with her unhappiness. "Isabel, as she herself grew older, became acquainted with revulsions, with disgusts; there were days when the world looked black and she asked herself with some sharpness what I was that she was pretending to live for." She admired Madame Merleís habit of making of herself all surface. Nowadays, however, she has lost the desire to learn Madame Merleís trick. She believes she should keep her troubles to herself. She has found Madame Merle annoying in her overly fastidious insistence that she be discreet in terms of her relationship with the Osmonds. Madame Merle has told her that she must be on her guard so that Isabel wonít become jealous of her and Mr. Osmond. Isabel is very surprised by this idea. She thinks she would have to be happy with Gilbert in order to be jealous of him.

Isabel has had three years to think about Mrs. Touchettís accusation that Madame Merle arranged her marriage to Gilbert Osmond. Isabel has decides that she must take responsibility for her own mistake. Madame Merle might have pushed Osmond into it, but she feels that she herself made the choice as a free person. She feels that thereís no way to repair the mistake but to accept it.

One day, when Ralph had been in Rome for a month, Isabel returns home from a walk with Pansy. She spends all her time with Pansy and loves being with her. She finds her "ingeniously passive and almost imaginatively docile." Isabel takes walks almost every day. When she returns from this one, she has a shock. She receives an "impression." When she walks into the room, she sees Madame Merle is with her husband. They donít hear her approach so she has a moment to see them as they are when they arenít on their guard. She is shocked to see that they are staring at each other silently in a pose of intimacy. She is more surprised to see that Gilbert is sitting while Madame Merle is standing. When they see her, Gilbert jumps up and leaves quickly. Madame Merle stays to talk with Isabel.

She wants to tell Isabel she needs help getting rid of Edward Rosier who keeps bothering her to help with his marriage suit to Pansy. Isabel is ironic and distant. Madame Merle notices it. Madame Merle says she doesnít know "what mysterious connection [Mr. Rosier] may have discovered between [her] and Pansy" but he is pleading with her to help him. She doesnít think heís the best husband for Pansy and so doesnít want to see him any more. She says she is washing her hands of the matter. Isabel tells her she canít be honestly washing her hands of the matter since she shows herself to be much too interested; that is, she doesnítí want Pansy to marry Rosier. Madame Merle says Rosier is now jealous of Lord Warburton. Isabel is surprised at this. Madame Merle wants Isabel to speak to Pansy of Lord Warburton. Isabel refuses to intervene in any way. When Isabel mentions that Lord Warburton has already spoken to her of his affection for Pansy, Madame Mere exclaims that she is surprised Isabel hasnít spoken to Osmond of it. She realizes she has said too much and blushes. Isabel says Warburton will speak to Osmond on his own behalf. Madame Merle indicates that Isabel should try to get Warburton to speak to Pansy. Isabel again refuses to intervene. Madame Merle indicates that she knows Warburton once proposed marriage to Isabel even though Isabel herself never revealed this. Isabel says she thinks Warburton would be a good husband for Pansy. She adds the request that Madame Merle be kind to Rosier when she sends him away.


Notes

Henry James is famous for his subtle depiction of drawing room dynamics. The social codes that are unspoken but remarkably well observed, the deep meaning of gestures, slight departures from prescribed manners, significant looks, and such like are the matter of his most exquisite descriptions. In this chapter, an extraordinarily important plot development happens not in some external action, but in nothing more than a perception. Isabel Archer walks into the room and notices that her husband and Madame Merle are in the same room together and not speaking. She realizes in an instant that it takes a great deal of intimacy to be in the room with someone, stare into that personís eyes, and be silent. The second element of the scene that startles her into recognition is that Madame Merle is standing while Gilbert Osmond is sitting. As the host to the guest, this relationship demands just the opposite. Standing there means that Madame Merle is much more at home in Gilbert Osmondís home than her supposedly distant relationship to him would warrant.

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. She merely speaks somewhat coldly and ironically to Madame Merle. Sheís clearly holding her opinions about Pansyís marriage to herself.

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