Grooming Her for His Satisfaction: Osmond, Pansy, and Misogyny in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’

April 30, 2019 by Essay Writer

Although still a global issue today, misogyny in the time period of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady stemmed from the quantification of a woman’s value from what she can contribute to males rather than her character. The author explores this concept through the dynamic between Gilbert Osmond, the only suitor to capture the protagonist’s attention, and his adolescent daughter, Pansy. His maintenance of authority over her reveals his biased opinion of females.

Osmond maintains an authoritative role over his daughter, Pansy, and takes advantage of his power over her to groom her into a personality shaped by her submission and urge to satisfy figures of superiority. While visiting her daughter at the convent, he is excited by the nuns’ positive feedback concerning his daughter. When he repeats sister Catherine’s compliment of Pansy’s thorough preparation for entrance into society at large, Osmond’s daughter worriedly responds by staring at her father “with her pure young eyes. ‘Am I not meant for you, papa?’” (12). The narrator’s diction of the phrase “pure young eyes” emphasizes Pansy’s impressionability, which her father has manipulated. She eagerly seeks a definite confirmation of her father’s approval after a lifetime of him teaching her to obey. When sister Catherine announces her departure, Pansy is denied the opportunity to plan a visit with her later that evening. The narrator describes that she sits “disappointed, but not protesting. She was evidently impregnated with the idea of submission, which was due to any one who took the tone of authority; and she was a passive spectator of the operation of her fate” (19-21). This brief episode and presentation of the lack of importance the other characters place upon her wants acts as an indicator of Osmond’s constant control over his daughter. She recognizes her disdain for her situation, yet she feels overwhelmingly trapped and unable to escape the restraints that Osmond has placed upon her. Furthermore, the distinct yet figurative not literal use usage of the word “impregnated” insinuates the idea of a lack of choice, which runs parallel to the circumstances of unwanted conception. Lastly, the narrator highlights Pansy’s malleability, caused by her unformed personality. James implies that Pansy has been trained, in a sense, to obey without negotiation any person commanding superiority over her. Over the course of her lifetime, Osmond has coerced Pansy into a fragile state of compliance, which has led her to fruitlessly seek the approval of her father, who represents the ultimate authority in her eyes.

The language used in the comments articulated by Pansy’s father subtly demonstrate his belief that women fill less significant than men, and it is this prejudice of his that causes his extreme dominance over his daughter. When describing Madame Merle to sister Catherine, he explains that she will aid Osmond to “decide whether [his] daughter shall return to [the convent] at the end of the holidays” (2-3). Although this implies that he wants to make a beneficial decision for Pansy, his authoritative behavior serves as a reminder that the decision that Osmond makes will be one that is advantageous to his own wants and predisposition for his daughter. This quick and apathetic mention of his own control over where Pansy will reside indicates that he views her as simply an object incapable of providing any sort of gain for him. When both Madame Merle and sister Catherine voice their appreciation for Pansy in the same way, Osmond shifts the projection of these words directly to his daughter by affirming, “[d]o you hear that, Pansy? You are meant for the world” (11). Although Osmond does not normally speak to his daughter personally, he emphasizes is intentional about emphasizing what his future plans for his daughter are. The phrasing of his opinion of her implies that she is merely a spectacle for others to awe over. This precise diction acts as a testament to Osmond’s limited view of women. The misogynistic undertones of Pansy’s father’s speech display the root of his need for control over his daughter.

Gilbert Osmond requires that he hold the ultimate role of authority over his daughter, Pansy, due to the finite amount of potential that he believes women possess, a view which the implications of his dialogue about Pansy reveal. He views his own daughter as solely a symbol to be presented to the world in order to demonstrate the authority he holds. His incessant demands for power over Pansy find their ramifications in her development of an undeniable and unquenchable urge to please others, especially those in positions of authority. In terms of modern feminism and the fight against misogyny, the unfortunate situation Pansy presents makes a strong case for the continued combat of societal and institutionalized gender roles.

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