Isabel is prototypically American. Newly orphaned in her late teens, she finds herself brought to England by her aunt, Lillian Touchett, a brash and independent woman who never fails to tell people exactly what she thinks of them. Isabel is not rich and not as pretty as her sisters, but she’s intelligent and committed to living a full life. More than that, she’s committed to her independence. Her notions of freedom manifest themselves in her taking a stand against society, in her repeated refusals to join the crowd and to do what is expected of her. Isabel is who she is, to use a tautology, and while she captivates everyone she meets, she rarely does what it would take to enter their full good graces.
But everyone still loves her, to the point that when her uncle dies, her cousin Ralph, who has known her for less than a year, gives away half of his own inheritance to make her independently wealthy. The idea here is that Isabel will be able to refuse the marriage offers that are bound to come her way—she has in fact already turned down a suitor from New York and an English lord—and to travel and think on her own, to maintain her independent self. This, as you might imagine, is not to be.
The seeds of Isabel’s destruction are planted when she meets her aunt’s friend Madame Merle, who describes herself as belonging to the “old, old world”—an explicit rejection of American ideas of freedom and individuality. If Isabel’s personality has little or no social element, Madame Merle has nothing other than the faces she shows to the world. She turns spiritual homelessness into a virtue. There is no authentic human self hiding beneath the surface of social pleasantries, but Isabel is unaware of this absence because she is not particularly good at looking beneath the surface. The reader, however, on his or her second time through the book, is easily able to spot the warning signs:
She was in short the most comfortable, profitable, amenable person to live with. If for Isabel she had a fault it was that she was not natural; by which the girl meant, not that she was either affected or pretentious, since from these vulgar vices no woman could have been more exempt, but that 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. She was in a word too perfectly the social animal that man and woman are supposed to have been intended to be; and she had rid herself of every remnant of that tonic wildness which we may assume to have belonged even to the most amiable persons in the ages before country-house life was the fashion.Madame Merle’s complete self-alienation—in fact her total lack of a cohesive self—leads her to a social position that removes all social alienation. She can navigate the world just fine because there’s no need to mesh what is inside with what is outside. Instead, she’s completely surface, all motion with no act.
It’s no shock that Isabel likes her, of course; James presents her as something almost superhuman, as evidenced by Ralph’s description of her midway through the book: “she pushes the search for perfection too far . . . her merits are in themselves overstrained. She’s too good, too kind, too clever, too learned, too accomplished, too everything. She’s too complete, in a word.” One can’t achieve this superhuman completeness without sacrificing something, and Madame Merle has sacrificed her authentic self in favor of a self composed of the me rather than the I.
She is in the end quite sinister, as Mrs. Touchett’s summary of her demonstrates: “She can do anything; that’s what I’ve always liked her for. I knew she could play any part; but I understood that she played them one by one. I didn’t understand that she would play two at the same time.” But how can a person composed only of social sides not be two-faced? It’s in the job description.
I will refrain from giving away too many of Madame Merle’s secrets, but suffice it to say that most of the bad things that happen to Isabel in the second half of the novel are mostly her fault. Foremost among them is her marriage to Gilbert Osmond, an American dilettante living in Florence whom Isabel is manipulated into marrying, against the wishes of all of her friends. Once they are married, Gilbert turns into an oppressive monster, one who will not allow Isabel her own opinions or actions. He married her for her money, of course, and once she becomes his wife, he sees her as nothing but a painting to display on the wall. And paintings don’t talk back.
The reader is hard-pressed to discover a reason for Isabel’s attraction to him; he is vastly inferior to her cousin Ralph, who’s in love with her, and not even as good as the self-loathing Lord Warburton, whose proposal she callously turns down. Isabel is attracted to his poverty; she knows that, unlike Warburton, Osmond will not be taking care of her once they are wed, and she extrapolates from this fact the idea that she will not have to sacrifice her independence.
It is, in the end, her commitment to independence and freedom that get her into so much trouble. Her desire for independence traps her in a terrible marriage (in an era in which it was very difficult to get a divorce), and her rebellious streak causes her to disregard all the warnings she receives from her friends and family. And in pursuing independence, she sacrifices independence. The warning here, I suppose, is against unchecked freedom, which is in the end not the highest ideal—wisdom is.
But the story does not exactly end in Isabel’s abject misery. She is married to a tyrant, stripped of friends and family, and drifting through life without purpose or hope. But two good things come from her alienation. The first is that her friends, who could not get along before, suddenly understand one another and form real relationships of the type Isabel is no longer capable of having. She has become the sacrificial lamb for their emotional and spiritual health; her misery has allowed them to escape their own.
The second is that she forms a close relationship with her stepdaughter, Pansy, who is not particularly bright or ambitious but is kind and does not deserve a manipulative cad like Osmond as her father. (Near the end of the novel, Osmond attempts to make her marry Lord Warburton for money and social position, refusing to listen to her protests that she loves another, less wealthy man.) Isabel stays an Osmond because someone must protect Pansy from the sinister machinations of her father and Madame Merle; she has lost the efficacy of her own private, independent mind, but she can still provide one for Pansy, can still help her stepdaughter exist in a world other than the cruel social one.
It’s not a happy ending, of course, but it’s not exactly a sad one, either. Isabel, who set foot on the continent as a naïve romantic committed to the very American ideal of personal liberty, has discovered that the evil in the world makes something more important than freedom: responsibility. She gives her life meaning by submitting it, unasked, to another.