Role of Pansy in the Novel The Portrait of a Lady

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      Pansy Osmond is the illegitimate daughter of Madame Merle and lives with Gilbert Osmond. She is the convent-bred European girl who has humbly accepted the value of traditional graces. She has no individuality of her own. Our attempt to search for any individuality, any specific characteristics in her is bound to fail since, she completely reflected Osmond’s ideas and attitudes. She thinks it her sacred duty to submit to her father’s authority. She is a ‘blank’ sheet completely devoid of any talent, art, guile or temper. Isabel, when she first meets her, hopes to cover the blank sheet with an edifying text. Her love affair with Ned Rosier, in the later part of the novel, is of interest to us. When Isabel meets Pansy in the convent and Pansy extracts a promise from her to return to Rome and help her, we can see the emergence of a personality as far as Pansy is concerned.

      Pansy is one of the minor characters in the novel but her role is significant. It is Pansy who can be said to have induced Isabel to come to Rome since she had extracted a promise from her. Pansy’s absence would have brought forth a significant change in the ending of the novel.

Pansy Symbolizes the Relationship existing between the main characters

      Pansy symbolizes the relationship existing between the main characters of the novel. Her role in The Portrait of a Lady is reminiscent of the sale of Pearl in Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter. Pearl too was an illegitimate child and a living hieroglyphic of the relationship of Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Psynne.

Pansy adumbrates Isabel’s fate

      Our first meeting with Pansy establishes her as a blank sheet we come to know that she is one of the objects d’art in Osmond’s Villa. It seems that Osmond loves her because he has complete authority over her and her submission and beauty which has really made her an object fetches him compliments for preserving a fine jewel. From the very first meeting, we can infer what posture Isabel has to maintain in Osmond’s house. Thus Pansy, in a way, adumbrates Isabel’s fate.

She is Innocence personified

      Isabel is innocent; Pansy too is innocent. The edges of Isabel’s innocence are quite smoothed by the end of the novel but there is not even a remote possibility of innocence being dethroned by experience in the case of Pansy. In this respect she is a sharp contrast to her parents, Gilbert Osmond and Madame Marie. Her parents make ‘use’ of her for their own benefit and this contrast between her and her parents adds a dimension of almost demented villainy to their machinations.

      Pansy too has succumbed to the temptation of keeping up appearances, though unconsciously. It is Gilbert Osmond who is responsible for this and not Pansy herself who merely accepts what Osmond does or wants her to do. She is the uncomplaining humble object and Osmond, the one who experiments.

Pansy a foil to Isabel

      Though by the end of the novel we can very well imagine Pansy and Is able to be withdrawing from life and retreating into cold gloomy cells of non-entitization designed for them by Osmond, there is still a lot of difference between Pansy and Isabel. Isabel’s passion for freedom does not even as a shadow appears in Pansy. Pansy has been brought up in the authoritarian atmosphere while Isabel was not and she never accosted authority. Pansy can never declare like Isabel “I’m not a candidate for adoption” as Isabel does in the very beginning.

      Ned Rosier’s pursuit of Pansy is also in sharp contrast with Osmond’s pursuit of Isabel. Ned Rosier could sell whole of his property to be a rich match for Pansy but Osmond will never do anything of this kind. He will undoubtedly try and seek new ways and means of keeping up superb and fabulous appearances and thus ensuring others.

Pansy’s absence would have changed the ending

      Isabel comes to know about Osmand’s deception. After that Isabel’s stay in Osmond’s house becomes a debatable issue. Without Pansy her stay in Osmond’s house would have been too insipid, too dry. It is only Pansy’s company which provides a sort of relief to Isabel and thus she goes out with her frequently.

      After Isabel drops the role of wife-on-Osmond’s terms she chooses to protect and help Pansy. Time and again she defends Pansy before her father. Isabel promises Pansy to return to Rome and she does return. One of the determining factors in Isabel’s return was the promise made to Pansy and Isabel always valued the promises. Isabel also felt a kind of pleasure in her role as a ‘guardian angel’ of Pansy. Henry James too tells us : “On her own side her sense of the girl’s dependence was more than a pleasure : it operated as a definite reason when motives threatened to tail her. She had said to herself that we must take our duty where we find it, and that we must look for it as much as possible. Pansy’s sympathy was a direct admonition; it seemed to say that here was an opportunity for what Isabel could hardly have said: “In general to be more for the child than the child was to be for herself.”


      Thus it is clear that Pansy plays an important role in the novel. Though she has not been drawn on a grand scale, yet she is a living character created in appreciably economical manner.

University Questions

“Pansy symbolizes the relationship existing between the main characters of the novel.” Elucidate.
Discuss the role of Pansy in The Portrait of a Lady.

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