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MonkeyNotes-Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
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Chapter 51

Isabel gets news from Mrs. Touchett that Ralph is dying quickly. She asks Isabel to come. Isabel goes to see Gilbert to tell him of the news. Gilbert acts bored by it. Then he asks why she must go to Gardencourt. He says he was already abundantly generous with her in letting her spend so much time with Ralph in Rome when he visited. Now he will not let her go to England. He accuses Isabel of going to England not to see Ralph but to take revenge on himself. Isabel denies that she is thinking of revenge. Osmond tells her he does know about revenge and that she shouldn’t make him show her. He tells her that if she leaves Rome it will be deliberate and calculated opposition. Isabel tells him that she recognizes his opposition as malignant. He tells her they must present a social face of being inseparable as a couple. Isabel asks him what it means if she defies him. Will it mean that he will not expect her to come back? He is clearly shocked at this idea. He asks her if she is out of her mind. She tells him she wants to know what it is if it isn’t to be a rupture of their marriage. He tells her he won’t argue with her and he picks his brush back up and starts to look at his painting again.

Isabel leaves the room and runs into the Countess. She tells her about Ralph’s condition and Gilbert’s order that she must not leave Rome. The Countess tries to encourage her to leave. Isabel gets up and leaves the room when the Countess goes into her usual flippant manner. She goes to her room and sits thinking for the next hour. She feels overwhelmed by the marriage vows she took, which she thinks she will be breaking if she leaves for England. She lays her head down on a pillow in despair.

The Countess comes in and tells her she wants to tell her something. She says her first sister-in-law never had any children. She says Pansy’s mother is Madame Merle. Gilbert had made up the story that his first wife had died in childbirth. In actuality, he had been carrying on an affair with Madame Merle from the beginning of his marriage. Madame Merle’s husband had long since left her, so when she got pregnant, she couldn’t say it was her husband’s child. Gilbert’s wife had recently died, so they concocted the story that she had died in childbirth and that Gilbert had been so devastated by her death that he had put Pansy in a convent to be raised by nuns. Then he had moved from Naples to Florence. No one had ever questioned their story. They are no longer lovers. Gilbert had gotten bored with her obsession with being careful not to get caught. Madame Merle had wanted Isabel to be Pansy’s mother because she knew Pansy didn’t like her and she knew Pansy needed money that Isabel would most likely give her for a dowry.

Isabel wonders why Madame Merle and Gilbert had never married. According to Countess Gemini, Madame Merle had never loved Gilbert "in that way." She had been very ambitious to marry very well. She had also worried that people would put it together and realize that she was Pansy’s mother. Isabel says she has wondered about Madame Merle's stake in Pansy. She realized it the day Madame Merle showed her extreme disappointment when Lord Warburton withdrew. Isabel feels sorry for Madame Merle and for Gilbert’s first wife who was betrayed so early in her marriage.

Countess Gemini asks Isabel if she will now give up her journey to England. Isabel feel sick. She says she must see Ralph. She says this with "infinite sadness."


Notes

Isabel finally learns all the truth of Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond’s relationship in this chapter. She learns not only that they are Pansy’s biological parents, but all the reasons they enacted the scheme to make everyone think Osmond’s first wife had died in childbirth. The revelation of this truth is perfectly aligned with the character portraits Henry James has already drawn of Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond. Madame Merle cares only about appearances. She has been ambitious for a very high marriage for herself and since she has not succeeded in this, she has transferred her ambitions to Pansy. For his part, Gilbert seems to continue in the pose of being bored by all of it, tired of Madame Merle and ready to disregard her despite all she has done for him. Both people are represented as being depraved in highly social ways. They care only about what is thought of them. They will do anything, make instruments of innocent people, to accomplish a good public image. Their motives have nothing to do with love or passion. They are only motivated by social success.

Isabel’s next move seems determined. Gilbert has told her that she must not leave him to go see Ralph. She feels she must see Ralph at his dying hour. Going to English seems as if it will inevitably kill her marriage publicly. However, Isabel still has Pansy to think of. Despite the fact that she has been used for her money, she will still feel it necessary to help Pansy not only with money but with her own submission to social propriety. This news will not necessarily, then, set her free from Gilbert.

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