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MonkeyNotes-Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
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Chapter 49

The narrator goes back in time to the day that Madame Merle came back from Naples and saw Isabel, the incident only mentioned briefly before. On that day, after Madame Merle had asked Isabel what she had done to send Lord Warburton away, Isabel had asked her not to talk of him. Madame Merle says she can’t help but talk about it since she had set her heart on the marriage. Isabel is bothered by Madame Merle’s presumption and by her critical air. Madame Merle makes it worse by telling Isabel she plans to ask Pansy what Isabel told her.

At these words, Isabel is struck by a sense that Madame Merle "was a powerful agent in her destiny." She feels a strong mistrust of the older woman. She realizes after a moment that Madame Merle’s interest is identical with Osmond’s. Madame Merle continues to imply half-obliquely that Isabel worked positively against the match. Then she tells Isabel that Osmond judges her severely. Isabel is shocked at Madame Merle’s insolence in speaking to her about Osmond. Finally, Madame Merle tells Isbel she didn’t come to scold her but to learn the truth about what happened between her and Lord Warburton in regard to the marriage proposal. It’s clear that Madame Merle is speaking on Osmond’s behalf. She tells Isabel that Osmond made a mess of it by accusing Isabel and that she wants Isabel to be honest with her and tell her the truth. She tries to flatter Isabel by saying that she’s showing her honor by asking her the question so forthrightly and expecting an honest reply. She ends her appeal by saying of Lord Warburton: "Let him off--let us have him!"

Isabel has lost all color in her face as she’s listened to Madame Merle’s speech. Finally she asks, "Who are you--what are you? What have you to do with my husband?" Madame Merle mocks her for taking it so "heroically." Isabel asks, "What have you to do with me?" Madame Merle gets up from her seat and stands over Isabel. She says, "Everything!" Isabel cries, "Oh, misery" and puts her hands over her face. When she removes them, Madame Merle is gone. Isabel realizes that Mrs. Touchett was right all along when she said Madame Merle arranged her marriage to Gilbert.

Isabel drives alone that afternoon. Since her friends have left Rome, she has wandered more than usual. Most often she takes Pansy with her. Lately, the Countess Gemini has also come. Still, she likes to be alone much of the time. She wonders if she can say that Madame Merle is a "wicked" person. She’s never had experience with people of this sort. At least she is sure that Madame Merle has been "deeply false" with her. She can’t figure out why Madame Merle has manipulated her so much. She realizes there must have been some concept of gain. She remembers that Madame Merle was doubly affectionate with her after Mr. Toucehett’s death when she inherited all that money. She seems to have chosen her "closest intimate" and married her to him. She realizes now that Gilbert married her "like a vulgar adventure, for her money." She wonders if he would take her money and let her go or if she herself is also part of the bargain. By the end of her carriage ride that afternoon, she has come to say to herself, "Poor, poor Madame Merle!" at the thought of her husband’s power over the older woman.


That same afternoon, Gilbert Osmond is in Madame Merle’s parlor. They are in the same position Isabel found them in once. She is standing and he is sitting in front of her. She is intensely irritated with him for being so complaisant about their failed plans. He acts totally indifferent to her feelings and this indifference makes her more upset. She tells him Isabel doesn’t know what to do with herself. he says Isabel plans to carry out her ideas. Madame Merle says she is unclear about what Isabel’s ideas are. She says that in their talk this morning, Isabel was completely bewildered. Madame Merle bursts out that she would give her right hand to be able to weep. She says if she could weep she would be able to feel as she used to feel before she met him. She says that this morning with Isabel, she was vile and horrid. She says it was her "deviltry" that bewildered Isabel. She tells Gilbert that he hasn’t only dried up her tears, but he has dried up her soul. He argues with her on this point, saying the soul is immutable. She disagrees, saying the soul can be destroyed. She tells him he is very bad. She hates the fact that she has done such a poor job with herself. He says she is always charming. This makes her imitate Isabel’s gesture earlier. She covers her face with her hands. He asks her if she is going to cry now. Then he asks her if he has ever done anything to her. She says he is taking his revenge out on Isabel. Gilbert says all women have a vulgar imagination, just like bad novelists.

Madame Merle goes on to tell him that he has made Isabel afraid of him. She says that it is only after his marriage to Isabel that she has understood him. As she speaks, he is picking up one of her porcelain cups from her mantle. She asks him to be careful of "that precious object." He puts it back down. He tells her he only wanted Isabel to like him, really, to adore him. Since she hasn’t done this, he has to content himself with Pansy. She says, "Ah, if I had a child--!" he says she can take an interest in other people’s children. She says there is still something that holds them together. Osmond wants to know if it is the harm he can do to her. She says instead that it is the good she can still do for him. She says it is in this that she has been jealous of Isabel. She wants it to be her work.

Gilbert gets up to leave. He tells her she should leave it to him. When he has gone, she goes to look at the coffee cup he had been handling and sees that he was right that it has a small crack in it. She asks herself, "Have I been so vile all for nothing?"

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