The Portrait of a Lady
by Henry James
Character Role Analysis
Just as clearly as Isabel is our heroine, her husband, Gilbert Osmond, is our villain. We can’t help but picture him as John Malkovich (who portrayed him with a certain nuanced creepiness in the 1996 film), which doesn’t exactly make him any more cuddly and approachable. Osmond is the closest thing we get to evil in this novel; he’s manipulative, heartless, and terrifyingly intelligent. To adopt a clichéd but apt metaphor, Osmond takes a beautiful, unique butterfly (Isabel, duh), suffocates it, and keeps it preserved in his collection of lifeless, precious objects. This image sums up his whole outlook on life: everything beautiful, whether pieces of art or people, is just out there waiting to be collected.
Madame Merle is certainly an antagonist, but her relationship with Isabel is more complicated than Osmond’s. When first they meet, Madame Merle and Isabel are as thick as thieves; the older woman recognizes all the fineness and innate superiority of the young heiress. However, Madame Merle’s appropriation of Isabel to meet her own ends – that is to say, to take care of her illegitimate daughter, Pansy – is quite diabolical. She knows quite well what she’s doing with Isabel, and is totally aware that she could ruin everything she loves about the girl. Her own motives win out, though, and she knowingly sends Isabel into a life of marital misery. Madame Merle is depicted as both a monster and a sympathetic character; we, like Isabel, go back and forth between something resembling pity for her situation, and revulsion for her actions.