Gilbert Osmond: Character Analysis - The Portrait of a Lady

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      Gilbert Osmond is another important character in The Portrait of a Lady. Some critics have regarded him as the villain of the novel, while, others are of the opinion that Isebel also participates, in his evil actions.

Osmond as Described in the Novel

      Gilbert Osmond is an American expatriate who lives in Europe. He has been completely Europeanized since he has lived in Europe since his childhood. Because he has a strong passion for form and order, it is important to have a look on Osmond’s description in the novel which is a remarkably accurate and suggestive one :

      “He was a man of forty with a high but well-shaped head, on which the hair, still dense, but prematurely grizzled, had been cropped close. He had a fine, narrow, extremely modeled and composed face, of which the only fault was just this effect of its running a trifle too much to points; an appearance to which the shape of the beard contributed a little. This beard, cut in the manner of the portraits of the sixteenth century and surmounted by a fair mustache, of which the ends had a romantic upward flourish, gave its wearer a foreign, traditionary look and suggested that he was a gentleman who studied style. His conscious curious eyes, however, eyes at once vague and penetrating, intelligent and hard, expressive of the observer as well as of the dreamer would have assured you that he studied it only within well-chosen limits, and that in so far as he sought it he found it. You would have been much at a loss to determine his original clime and country; he had none of the superficial signs that usually render the answer to this question an insipidity easy one. If he had English blood in his veins it had probably received some French or Italian commixture, but he suggested, fine gold coin as he was, no stamp nor emblem of the common mintage that provides for general circulation; he was the elegant complicated medal struck off for a special occasion. He had a light, lean, rather languid-looking figure, and was apparently neither tall nor short. He was dressed as a man dresses who takes little other trouble about it than to have no vulgar things.”

      This description and the opening paragraph of the chapter twenty-two beautifully sums up Osmond’s character : “He lives with his daughter Pansy in his Florentine villa. Madame Merle, his old friend introduces Isabel to him. Their relationship develops, and finally, Isabel marries Osmond. After marriage Isabel starts realizing that Osmond is all appearances and no substance. Once she finds Osmond and Madame Merle talking intimately. The scene haunts her in her midnight vigil. The Countess Gemini, Osmond’s sister discloses to Isabel the truth that Pansy is Madame Merle’s daughter and it was money which made Madame Merle make Isabel and Osmond’s marriage. Isabel and Osmond’s marriage turns out to be complete failure in every sense. When Isabel wants to go and see her ‘dying’ cousin, Osmond opposes but Isabel defies Osmond. Osmond appeals to her to preserve appearances, if does nothing else. In the end, Isabel returns to live with Osmond.”

Osmond has ‘Renounced’ the world

      Osmond has seemingly renounced the world, but in reality, he lives on the worldly level. He wore the appearance of stirred senses and deep intentions. He is a “sterile dilettente” as Ralph so aptly puts it. He has no genuine love for the arts with his old curtains and crucifixes ; with his bibelots, his pictures, his medallions and tapestries, and his dependence on ‘beauty’ as the secret of existence, he is the portrait of a pure aesthete ; a ‘collector’. “He had consulted his taste in everything—his taste alone perhaps, as a sick man consciously incurable consults at last only his lawyer.”

      Isabel was thoroughly taken in by Osmond’s ‘appearances’. - She thought him to be an aristocratic magnificence personified, which results from a finely cultured and profound life. The problem was that Osmond was nothing else but outward trappings. He lacked any substance or content, and even the best that Isabel could finally say of him was that “he has a genius for upholstery.” Ralph is able to perceive the real character of Osmond—Osmond lived exclusively for the world. His overriding passion is to order everything around him—including people, into some sort of museum—like existence where all freedom, movement, development, and dynamic possibilities are excluded. This he does with Isabel, but only after of his attempts to make life a work of art have left Pansy? a ‘dusty object on a shelf capable of only of submitting in all aspects to her father’s exorbitant demands.

Osmond’s Proposal Scene

      Osmond’s proposal scene is in direct contrast to those of Caspar Goodwood’s and Lord Warburton’s. His proposal is not an unexpected one; he simply blurts it out. He does not press Isabel to marry him; he simply asks for it. This somehow or the other ensnares Isabel. Mrs. Touchett’s remarks on Osmond’s ‘probably cold-blooded love affairs’. Ralph also says : “I think he is narrow, selfish. He takes himself so seriously He is the incarnation of taste. He judges and measures, approves and condemns altogether by that.” These remarks amply illustrate the fact that he is sexually passive.

He is an Sir Embodiment of Egotism

      Osmond has, like all the human beings, both good and bad qualities. His egotism is one of his worst qualities. Egotism is a quality which is present in many characters in the novel. Isabel too is egotistic in some ways. Osmond’s is the most stark and sinister kinds of egotism. He is an egotist “under all his culture, his cleverness, his amenity, under his good-nature, his facility, his knowledge of life, his egotism lay hidden like a serpent in a bank of flowers.” In a confession he tells Isabel that he envies only three people in the world—‘the Emperor of Russia..., the Sultan of Turkey..., and the Pope of Rome—for the consideration he enjoys.’ Everything that he does, stems from his appalling egotism.

He commits the cardinal Jamesian sin

      The cardinal Jamesian sin is that of a. total appropriation or another person’s life for egotistical ends. He has made Pansy a “dusty” object who instead of raising an eyebrow on what her father has done to her, simply worships him.

      She can never think of going against her father’s wishes. This is what Osmond wants to do to Isabel to turn her into a reflector of himself. Isabel’s tragedy is that she suffers for not what is worst but for what is best in her. The very fact of “having a mind of her own at all” becomes a personal offense to Osmond. He ‘sacrifices’ Isabel’s ideas and ideals and freezes her emotionally. Here he reminds her of Hawthorne’s Ethan Brand and Roger Chillingworth who are guilty of the “unpardonable sin” of tampering with “the sanctity of the human heart.”

      Osmond also makes full use of Madame Merle. Madame Merle ends up utterly, dries up, and unable to cry: “You’ve dried up, my soul”. Perhaps the saddest cry in the novel is Madame Merle’s lament.

The Saving Graces of Osmond

      Osmond is not a totally evil character. There are some redeeming features which save him from the depths of oblivion, from the cold hatred of the reader. It is right that he married Isabel for money, but we find it a bit difficult to hold the view that money is his sole consideration. Isabel herself does not accuse him of having done anything wrong : “He was not violent; he was not cruel ; she simply believed, he hated her.” It may be right that Osmond has deceived Isabel but Isabel too has deceived him. She also wears a mask which dupes Osmond—hers is the mask of innocence Osmond’s way of life, his choices and tastes, his Florentine Villa— all enchant Isabel. Right from the beginning it is clear that some part of Isabel yearns to be framed as the portrait; Osmond only helps in realizing the possibilities.

      Isabel has a strong sense of identity. She acknowledges in the chapter forty-two that her own fineness and strong sense of identity could have disturbed as Osmond had annoyed her. Those who may love to go to another extreme, that of considering Osmond as a sympathetic character can argue well on the basis of the fact that every human being has a right to live and consequently anything that he does to live is fair and correct. After all Osmond too wanted to live, not just to exist. Your Winters, the critic has rightly defended Osmond in his Defence of Reason : “Osmond is a kind of neurotic thoroughly aesthete, self-centered, unscruplous within the limits of safety, and unplesant, but the species of terror which Isabel comes to feel in regard to him is absolutely unexplained by any of his actions or by any characteristic described.” True, “he betrayed Isabel in regard to his marriage with her, but this betrayal is scarcely a motive for the particular feeling which Isabel comes to experience.”

Is Osmond a representative of James ?

      In some ways Gilbert Osmond is a representative of Henry James—he shares some of James’s qualities. Very much like James, Osmond considers life a “waste” and “art” as the only perfect representation of life. A public display of personal feelings and emotions is detestable to both Osmond and James. Osmond too has cultivated tastes and refined manners. We see that Ralph too has detached himself from the world. Ralph’s detachment is a genuine one unlike that of Osmond whose detachment is no more than a pretence, a sham. Ralph Touchett meddles with other persons’ lives to help in making their lives happier; Osmond meddles to kill their identity.


      In an attempt to analyze Osmond’s character we find that Osmond is not a simple character. F.W. Dupee has very carefully distinguished the characterization of Osmond from the role assigned to him in the plot which makes him till the stock conspirator in melodrama. He is a realist, undermining the presumptuous fixed ideas of our romantic heroine. That is the design and purpose of Osmond. On the other hand, Osmond, is “a notable study in modern perversity.”

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