Isabel’s Relations with Madame Merle & Gilbert Osmond

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      In most of his novels, The Portrait of a Lady Henry James is concerned with the forms evil assumes in a developed society. It seems as if the domestication of evil is a price demanded of civilization. Evil exercises a subtle and indirect way, and it partakes of the forms of civilization, as J. A. Ward observes. This is a disturbing paradox of its existence. In The Portrait of a Lady, James is primarily interested in the societal aspect of evil, The two agents of evil in the novel are Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond.

      Innocence versus evil. It is significant that Madame Merle is not introduced till Chapter 18. In other words, her appearance is delayed till such time as Isabel’s American freshness and innocence are considered a part of her aura by the reader. It is these qualities which make her vulnerable to the kind of threat represented by Madame Merle. It is essential for James to prepare us for the indirect assault. When eager innocence crosses the path of sated and soured experience, evil is inevitably the outcome.

      Isabel first meets Madame Merle at Gardencourt during Daniel Touchett’s last illness. We also see her through Isabel’s eyes. Tall and smooth, supple and round, Madame Merle is the attractive picture of achieved European grace. An expatriate American, she speaks French like a native French. Madame Merle appeals for her ‘finish’ and perfection. She is elegance personified. Isabel is charmed indeed, swept off her feet by Madame Merle, whom James calls ‘too ripe, too final’. Isabel is characteristically responsive to gestures of love and understanding. Madarne Merle contrives to enlist the sympathy of a ‘frank generous and sincere’ psyche. In Chapter 20, we are made aware of the increased interest of Madame Merle in Isabel after she learns of the young girl’s legacy from Daniel Touchett.

      Madame Merle’s complicity with Gilbert Osmond is clear in Chapter 22 when she proposes to him that he make himself attractive to Isabel. It is Madame Merle who persuades Isabel to visit Osmond’s hill-top villa in Florence. She effectively silences the Countess who threatens to rescue Isabel from Osmond. She promises to look after Pansy while Osmond went to Rome to pay attention to Isabel. Madame Merle is the chief agent to bring about Isabel’s marriage with Osmond.

      Osmond is another example of the cultured veneer of elegance, grace style. His whole person suggests a conscious effort ; there is a cultivated charm about it. Naturally, when Osmond first begins to court the beautiful American heiress, he takes care to present that aspect of his character which rings an answering bell in her. Isabel’s first impression of Osmond is that she has ‘never met a person of so fine a grain’. Isabel marries Osmond largely due to the fact that she imagines an intense life of culture for her in association with Osniond. Being an idealist, she is taken in by Osmond’s postures of idealism, and she feels that she must make money available to such a ‘noble soul’. She want to make him rich enough to meet the requirements of his imagination. Thus Isabel is as much a dupe to her own ‘fine’ theories as to the machinations of the forces of evil in Madame Merle and Osmond.

      Madame Merle is not present at Isabel’s marriage, and after the marriage avoids meeting her. The friendship between Osmond and Madame Merle grows stronger over the subject of Pansy’s marriage. In Chapter 40 Isabel comes upon Osmond and Madame Merle talking raptly with one another, and she detects a portentous note of familiarity in it. She is not as yet prepared to imagine any secret relationship between her husband and Madame Merle, but in Chapter 42 muses that her marriage has been a mistake. Osmond’s efforts at influencing Isabel’s mind are not to Isabel’s liking. The conflict between Osmond and Isabel is highlighted by his sarcastic remarks about her friends and his sending Pansy back to the convent because he feels that the girl is being influenced against him by Isabel. In Chanter 51 he forbids Isabel to go and see the dying Ralph. Then comes Gountess Gemini’s revelation to Isabel about the true state of affairs between Osmond and Madame Merle. Only now can Isabel understand Madame Merle’s deep interest in Pansy’s welfare, for she now knows that Pansy is Madame Merle’s daughter by Osmond. Isabel decides to go to England in defiance of Osmond’s wishes, and pays a visit to the convent to see Pansy before her departure. There she meets Madame Merle who has broken with Osmond and is now leaving for America. She knows that Pansy hates her and she has nothing more to stay on at Rome for. She also reveals to Isabel that it was Ralph who had instigated his father to leave that large legacy to Isabel. Isabel’s relations with Madame Merle and Osmond help in her movement towards knowledge.

      Two kinds of egotism meet in the struggle of Isabel against Osmond. Indeed, one remarkable feature in this triangular relationship is that while Isabel admires the ‘finish’ and ‘polish’ and the ‘noble ideas’ of Madame Merle and Osmond, they too admire Isabel for her vivacity, intelligence, her independence of mind, and her originality. Isabel’s egotism lies in her conviction of her own inviolability. Osmond’s ego is like a whale’s jaw, ready to swallow up anything coining within its range. Having nursed such an ego over a number of years, lie has come to cast his life in a set style. There has been a marked erosion of his sensibility and the generous, humanist impulses have dried up in him. He is all ‘gilt’ and ‘ossified mound’, as a critic points out his name suggests.

      It is noteworthy that Isabel, to some extent, shares the traits of Osmond and Madame Merle. Her esthetic approach to life, her respect for form and the lineaments of ’the traditionary sacredness’ of marriage, and concern for appearances—all these echo Osmond’s traits. Madame Merle a finished portrait, and Isabel undergoes the process of becoming one herself.

      In her return to Rome, Isabel seems to be paying the same tribute to ‘convention’ of surface appearances that Osmond himself admires. What brings the three together is Madame Merle’s ambition to see Pansy well off, Osmond’s calculated wish to possess, and Isabel’s own idealism. The face of evil at a certain social level is smooth and beyond definition. And civilization is not, indeed, cannot be, free of it.

University Questions

Discuss Isabel’s relations with Madame Merle and Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady.
Evil exercises its sway in an indirect and subtle style. Its face wears an elegant mask, and its form ‘partakes of the forms of civilization. Consider the relevance of this comment to the relationship of Isabel to Madame Merle and Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady.

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