The Portrait of a Lady
by Henry James
One of the creepiest images in the novel is that of Osmond’s "beautiful mind" (42.5), which holds Isabel captive. He has a grasp on her that’s truly diabolical, and his mental and emotional domination over his wife is really horrific. However, despite all his creepiness and obsession with his bad self, what does Osmond actually do that’s so bad? The answer, we’re a little embarrassed to say, is nothing.
Sure, he’s rude, cruel, and demanding. However, as Isabel notes, he’s also outwardly polite to her, and certainly never threatens anyone with physical harm – we get the feeling that he would never do something so crude. Osmond is a villain who doesn’t do enough to actually be truly villainous; instead, he’s just kind of villain-ish. He’s most decidedly malevolent, but his evil works in subtle ways.
His profound intelligence allows him to shape other people – Pansy, Madame Merle, Isabel – almost without them realizing that he’s doing it. In the case of Madame Merle, his victim doesn’t see how much he has worked upon her until it’s far too late, and she feels as though he’s crushed her soul. If this were a comic book and he were actually a legitimate super-villain (as perhaps he’d like to be), he wouldn’t have any flashy powers, like super-strength or whatever – oh, no, Osmond would totally have dangerous mind-control capabilities.
Osmond’s do-nothingness extends beyond his relationships, and drives his whole life. Everything he’s involved in seems to be tied up in the ultimate project of making things fall into place as he wants them — without him having to do as much as extend his languid pinky finger.
Ralph calls him a sterile dilettante, but he’s something rather more intriguing than that. The way in which circumstances shape themselves to his needs and desires gives him the bearing of a magician or a conjurer of some kind. We’re not sure what font Osmond draws his powers of persuasion and manipulation from, but we certainly hope that nobody else knows about it… the idea of more than one Osmond in the world is terrifying.