illustration of Isabel Archer with a hand fan positioned between two silhouetted profiles

The Portrait of a Lady

by Henry James

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Chapters 51-55 Summary

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Last Updated April 19, 2023.

Mrs. Touchett tells Isabel that her cousin Ralph is very sick and may not survive. Mrs. Touchett suggests that Isabel should come to England if she wants to see him before he passes away. Despite Osmond's objection to the trip and his doubts about Ralph's illness, Isabel decides to leave Rome and go to England as soon as possible. Osmond shows no concern for Isabel's emotions and is only worried about maintaining the illusion of a happy marriage, which Isabel finds repulsive.

Isabel is extremely disturbed by Osmond's comments, and she talks to Countess Gemini about it. The Countess is not shocked by the argument, as she is aware that Isabel and Osmond's relationship is very tense, and she knows how malicious her brother can be. The Countess then discloses an astonishing truth: Osmond's deceased first wife was not actually Pansy's mother, despite what everyone believed.

Pansy is actually the result of a romantic relationship between Osmond and Madame Merle, who were secretly involved for several years. Madame Merle became pregnant with Pansy, while still being married, and to avoid scandal, Osmond lied and claimed that his first wife had died giving birth to Pansy. Madame Merle did not reveal herself as Pansy's mother but remained deeply interested in the well-being of Osmond and their daughter. She thought that Isabel would be a good stepmother for Pansy and provide enough financial support for their comfortable life. Countess Gemini explains that Madame Merle was disappointed when Lord Warburton did not propose to Pansy because she believed it would secure her daughter's future.

Isabel is shocked by this new information but manages to empathize with the cunning Madame Merle. Despite this, Countess Gemini insists that Isabel should proceed with her intentions to go back to England.

Isabel pays a visit to Pansy in the convent before departing Rome. Despite the kind and amiable nuns, the convent evokes a prison-like atmosphere to Isabel. To her surprise, Madame Merle is already there when she arrives, but Isabel keeps her distance and barely speaks to her. Upon seeing Pansy in her room, Isabel detects her stepdaughter's unhappiness right away.

Although Pansy is willing to stay as long as her father desires, she expresses her dislike for Madame Merle when asked by Isabel if she wants to go to England with her. Pansy remains obedient to Osmond and cannot disobey him. Isabel advises Pansy not to express her negative feelings for Madame Merle again and promises to visit her again in the future.

Isabel meets Madame Merle once more in the convent's waiting area after bidding farewell to Pansy. Both women realize that their association has come to an end. Madame Merle maliciously reveals to Isabel that it was Ralph, not Daniel Touchett, who orchestrated her inheritance of the fortune. This revelation leaves Isabel shaken. She expresses her desire to never see Madame Merle again and is relieved to hear that the woman intends to relocate to America.

Isabel meets Henrietta and Bob Bantling at the train station in England. After arriving, she goes to London and spends the night at Henrietta's apartment before heading to Gardencourt. During her stay, Henrietta reveals that she plans to marry Mr. Bantling, and Isabel expresses her happiness for them but finds it strange that Henrietta is leaving America to live in England. Bob is handling the situation well, as he usually does. Isabel confides in Henrietta about her uncertain future, revealing that her relationship with Osmond has been terrible. Henrietta advises Isabel to leave her husband.

Isabel travels to Gardencourt in the morning to visit Ralph. Upon arriving, she...

(This entire section contains 1176 words.)

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finds the house to be very quiet and the servants unfamiliar. Mrs. Touchett, who is sitting with her son, does not come to greet Isabel. Left to herself, Isabel wanders around the large house, reminiscing about the last time she was there when her uncle was dying. Eventually, Mrs. Touchett comes downstairs to welcome Isabel. During their conversation, Mrs. Touchett informs Isabel that Lord Warburton is marrying an aristocratic English woman, which surprises Isabel, but she tries not to show any other emotions. Although Isabel confesses to Mrs. Touchett that she and her husband, Gilbert Osmond, do not get along, Mrs. Touchett is still disappointed with her choice of spouse. Isabel also reveals that she has ended her relationship with Madame Merle.

Isabel arrives to see Ralph, but he is extremely weak and immobile. Despite his condition, Ralph perceives that Isabel is unhappy and holds himself responsible. Speaking softly, he reassures her that he arranged for her to receive her fortune because he wanted her to be happy. Ralph still thinks that Isabel can find happiness, as she is young and has the ability to improve her life. He encourages her to remain at Gardencourt and contemplate her options. Isabel is deeply upset as she witnesses Ralph's declining health.

Isabel wakes up the next morning and is convinced that Ralph has appeared to her as the ghost of Gardencourt. She thinks that maybe she has undergone enough pain to finally be able to see the apparition. Later, she visits her cousin's room and discovers that he has passed away. According to his will, Ralph has bequeathed the majority of his wealth to charitable causes, while his mother inherits Gardencourt. Isabel is not named as a beneficiary in Ralph's will.

Lord Warburton pays a visit a few days following the funeral and is taken aback to see that Isabel is still present. While conversing with her in the garden, he becomes embarrassed and struggles with his words before inviting her to visit him and his siblings at Lockleigh before departing for Italy. Isabel deduces that Warburton still harbors feelings for her, but declines the invitation citing a lack of time on this trip. She assures him that she will pay him a visit on a future occasion.

As the evening darkens, Caspar Goodwood, who had accompanied Ralph and Isabel from Rome to England, discovers Isabel alone in the garden. He urgently insists that Isabel take a seat and listen to him. He claims to know that Isabel is extremely unhappy in her marriage, as Ralph disclosed everything to him during their travels. Ralph asked Caspar to promise that he would take care of Isabel. Caspar now wants Isabel to stay with him and never return to Rome. He declares his love for her has grown stronger than ever and vows to care for her for the rest of her life. He then embraces Isabel and passionately kisses her. Isabel hurries back to the house, the darkness swirling around her.

After two days, Caspar visits Henrietta's residence in London and anticipates Isabel's presence. However, Henrietta informs him that Isabel had only stayed with her for one night and had already departed for Italy. The news comes as a shock to Caspar, and Henrietta attempts to comfort him by advising him to be patient since he's young and can still find love with someone else. Despite Henrietta's reassurance, Caspar feels devastated and as though he has suddenly aged 30 years.

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Chapters 46-50 Summary