Madame Merle: Character Analysis - The Portrait of a Lady

Also Read

      “Madame Merle is one of the earliest and most fascinating of James’s bad heroines”. This is how Leon Edel has characterized Madame Merle. First and foremost we will have a glance at how James has described her.

Madame Merle as Described in the Novel

      “Madame Merle was a tall, fair, smooth woman; everything in her person was round and replete, though without those accumulations which suggest heaviness. Her features were thick but in perfect proportion and harmony and her complexion had a healthy clearness. Her grey eyes were small but full of light and incapable of stupidity-incapable, according to some people, even of fears ; she had liberal full-rimmed mouth which when she smiled drew itself upward to the left side in a manner that most people thought very odd, some very affected and a few very graceful. Isabel inclined to range herself in the last category. Madame Merle had thick, fair hair, arranged somehow “classically” and as if she were a Bust. Isabel judged - a Juno or a Niobe; and large white hands, of a perfect shape, a shape so perfect that their possessor, preferring to leave them unadorned, wore no jeweled rings. Isabel had taken her at first, as we have seen, for a French-Woman; but extended observation might have ranked her as a German—a German of high degree, perhaps an Austrian, a baroness, a countess, a princess. It would never have been supposed she had come into the world in Brooklyn-though one could doubtless not have carried through any argument that the air of distinction marking her in so eminent a degree was inconsistent with such a birth. It was true that the national banner had floated immediately over her cradle, and the breezy freedom of the stars and stripes might have shed an influence upon the attitude she there took towards life and yet she had evidently nothing of the flattered, flapping quality of a morsel of bunting in the wind; her manner expressed the repose and confidence which came from a large experience. “Experience, however, had not quenched her youth; it had simply made her sympathetic and supple. She was in a word a woman of strong impulses kept in admirable order. This commended itself to Isabel as an ideal combination”.

      Madame Merle is a fully Europeanised American. Her father was an officer in the United States Navy. Madame Merle was born in Brooklyn. She is the unrecognized mother of the unfortunate Pansy. She is the one who introduces Isabel to Osmond and later on makes their marriage. She loses everything but gains nothing and in the end is banished to America.

Her Accomplishments

      Madame Merle has mastered many arts like, painting, music, embroidery, the art of keeping up appearances, the art of conversation etc. We first meet her playing at the piano at Gardencourt. Whenever she is seated at the piano, her listeners resigned themselves without a murmur to losing the grace of her talk.

      For Isabel, Madame Merle is the ideal that she would love to emulate. She represents, for Isabel, the ideal combination : “A woman of strong impulses kept in admirable order”: From the beginning her character ensnares Isabel. Her graceful and excellent manners exercise a great impact on Isabel. To Isabel’s mind Madame Merle appears charming, sympathetic, intelligent, cultivated. Madame Merle is one who knows, both, how to think and how to feel—a rare phenomenon in the world of woman. This is indeed Madame Merle’s great talent, her most precious gift. Life has told upon her, she has felt strongly.

She always kept up “Appearances”

      Once the road of life takes an unwanted turn, people lose hold of the roots of life and then invent ways and means to live, to exist. One of the commonest ways is always to have “a face to meet the faces that you meet”, in other words to worship at the altar of appearances. Madame Merle is a great worshipper in this content. She is completely devoted to the world of things. An important discussion takes place between Isabel and Madame Merle on the point of one’s relation with the externals. Isabel says that she does not care for the externals. Madame Merle replies :

      “That is very crude of you. When you’ve lived as long as I you’ll see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There’s no such thing as an isolated man or woman : we’re each of us made of some cluster of appurtenances. What shall we call our self? Where does it begin ? Where does it end ? It overflows into everything that belongs to us and then it flows back again. I know a large part of myself is in the clothes I choose to wear. I’ve a great respect for things. One’s self—for other people—is one’s expression of one’s self; and one’s house, one’s furniture, one’s garments, the book one reads, the company? one keeps—these things are all expressive”.

      When Isabel does not agree with her, Madame Merle enquires in an ironic tone, “should you prefer to go without them (clothes)?” At this point the discussion terminates.

      The passage quoted above is illustrative of Madame Merle’s, approach to life. It would be extremely interesting to study the novel in the light of this passage. It is from this very discussion, that we can infer that Madame Merle has genuine feelings for Isabel. Madame Merle is referred to as “complete” or “rounded” person again and again. In a way she is the closest approximation of Osmond’s idea of transforming life into art. Madame Merle existed all on the surface. The surface was so alluringly shimmering that even Isabel mistook it for a great life full of depths. This led Isabel to have a wrong view of Gilbert Osmond’s surface who has fastidiously cultivated himself for the sake of the effect.

Madame Merle Directs the Plot

      Isabel notes in the chapter nineteen that “she (Madame Merle) existed only in her relations, direct or indirect, with her fellow mortals ..... She was too ripe too final.” “Isabel found it difficult to think of her in any detachment of privacy...” Throughout the novel we observe the glaring fact of Madame Merle’s existence in ‘relations’. She does have a private, hidden self but the surface hides it too skilfully. Tonny Tanner, the critic puts it rather forthrightly : “In the world of Osmond and Madame Merle, self-seeking and simulation go together. They have to calculate effects. What is, is neglected ; what seems is paramount”.

      In order to make Pansy’s fortune secure, Madame Merle commits the cardinal Jamesian sin that of using another person as means to a person’s ends. Madame Merle exactly fits Kant’s, and Rousseau’s definition of the immoral world. She sees people; as instruments but has no concern or sense of their intrinsic worth just as means to her ends, not ends in themselves.

She Loses Everything but Gains Nothing

      The most morally ambiguous character in the novel, Madame Merle, is not an altogether bad character. If we try to find out the root of her malignity, frustration comes up as one of the possible reasons. She always wore the right mask for the right occasion. But the masks fetch her nothing except the cry : “You (Osmond) have dried up my soul”. Her words, “Have I been so vile for nothing” sum up her life story. Osmond too victimizes Isabel but his conscience does not prick him. This is not so with Madamer Merle, she knows what she is doing and is always conscious of it.

      Isabel always felt that Madame Metle was not the only fault in her ; her nature had been too much overlaid by custom and her angles too much rubbed away. She had become too flexible, too useful, was too ripe and too final. After Isabel comes to know about Madame Merle’s and Osmond’s relations, she for the last time, meets her in the convent. Isabel noticed a sudden break in her voice and it proved that Madame Merle’s art of keeping up appearances has received a deep crack. Madame Merle herself noticed everything. It was this recognition that made the most accomplished of women falter and lose her courage. After this Madame Merle went back to America.

      We can conclude by saying that Madame Merle is one of the complex and enigmatic of evil characters.

Previous Post Next Post