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As a character in the novel, Gilbert Osmond plays an important part, though the reader hears about him more than hearing from him directly. He is first introduced by Madame Merle, who has the highest opinion of him of anyone. She calls him one of the best people of Europe and paints his existence in romantic terms sure to elicit Isabel Archerís interest. She depicts him as a man who embodies the essence of European aestheticism. He lives his life for art, not for practicality, and his art is not professional, only personal and social. He paints water colors, but does so only for his own amusement. He collects art for the same purpose. Madame Merle makes it seem that it is a privilege to know Gilbert Osmond and that all the great people of Europe would be lucky to do so.
The Gilbert Osmond Henry James eventually introduces to the reader is far from this image painted by Madame Merle. He is selfish and grasping. He has a very high opinion of himself. He says that he realized when he was young that he would never be able to reach the highest position of power in the land, he would never be the pope or someone like him in power and authority, and so he decided to do nothing, to cultivate detachment. He seems to have done that only in the sense that he never pursued a career. He hasnít remained detached in other senses. He seems to be quite interested in his social standing and in cultivating the perfection of the things he owns. He has also conducted a fairly intense affair with Madame Merle for many years, intense enough to commit adultery, drive his wife to despair, and have a child and fake its legitimacy by lying about the cause of his wifeís death.
The relationship between Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond is one of the strangest in fiction. Madame Merle has such an extreme horror of gossip that she orchestrates the relationship on the most clandestine of terms. According to the Countess Gemini, Osmondís sister, this is the reason for Gilbertís loss of interest in Madame Merle. At the present time in the novel, they are no longer lovers, but that seems to be less significant than the fact that they are still the most intimate of partners. Gilbert Osmondís role in the relationship at first seems quite passive. When he and Madame Merle discuss the marriage before it is made, he seems to be led by her. She tells him what the use of the marriage is for Pansy and for him and he reluctantly agrees to muster up the necessary energy to court Isabel Archer. However, after he has been married to Isabel for three years, he seems a changed man in his relationship with Madame Merle. Heís positively cruel to her when they stand in her parlor and discuss Pansyís future. The power relation in the partnership seems to have been reversed.
Perhaps his opposite in the novel is Caspar Goodwood, the American man of action. Goodwood thinks of Osmond as a "brilliant personage of the amateurish kind, afflicted with a redundancy of leisure which it amused him to work off in little refinements of conversation." Another of his opposites in the novel is another of the American ex-patriots, Ralph Touchett. Ralph is detached from the world but retains the ability to feel for and with people around him. Gilbert is detached only out of a sense of superiority and has not the slightest faculty of feeling.