If his cousin were to be nothing more than an entertainment to him, Ralph was conscious she was an entertainment of a high order. "A character like that," he said to himself – "a real little passionate force to see at play is the finest thing in nature. It's finer than the finest work of art – than a Greek bas-relief, than a great Titian, than a Gothic cathedral. It's very pleasant to be so well treated where one had least looked for it. I had never been more blue, more bored, than for a week before she came; I had never expected less that anything pleasant would happen. Suddenly I receive a Titian, by the post, to hang on my wall – a Greek bas-relief to stick over my chimney-piece. The key of a beautiful edifice is thrust into my hand, and I'm told to walk in and admire. My poor boy, you've been sadly ungrateful, and now you had better keep very quiet and never grumble again." (7.6)
Ralph sees Isabel’s arrival as an incredible gift, as though he’s received a valuable masterpiece to care for. His attitude towards possession is one of loving admiration.
In so far as the indefinable had an influence upon Isabel's behaviour at this juncture, it was not the conception, even unformulated, of a union with Caspar Goodwood; for however she might have resisted conquest at her English suitor's large quiet hands she was at least as far removed from the disposition to let the young man from Boston take positive possession of her. The sentiment in which she sought refuge after reading his letter was a critical view of his having come abroad; for it was part of the influence he had upon her that he seemed to deprive her of the sense of freedom. (13.8)
The idea of any marriage, whether to Lord Warburton or Caspar Goodwood, rankles Isabel, who looks at matrimony as possession. She’s disinclined to allow Caspar to charge across the ocean and just claim her as his own.
She dropped, but then she broke out. "What good do you expect to get by insisting?"
"The good of not losing you."
"You've no right to talk of losing what's not yours." (16.11)
Ooh, burn. Caspar Goodwood gets a little too sassy with Isabel, and we find that she can bite back. She never wants to be the possession of any man.
… [Osmond] perceived a new attraction in the idea of taking to himself a young lady who had qualified herself to figure in his collection of choice objects by declining so noble a hand… It would be proper that the woman he might marry should have done something of that sort. (28.13)
Isabel’s rarity and unusual strength appeal to Osmond, the way a particular detail or artist’s touch might make him desire an object. He looks at people and art the same way, and this attitude doesn’t bode well for any of his relationships.
She only felt older – ever so much, and as if she were "worth more" for it, like some curious piece in an antiquary's collection. (32.1)
Isabel’s age and experience make her feel as though she’s a better person – and not just a better person, but also a more valuable piece of art. Under Osmond’s influence, she’s also beginning to see herself in this menacing light.
"He's the incarnation of taste," Ralph went on, thinking hard how he could best express Gilbert Osmond's sinister attributes without putting himself in the wrong by seeming to describe him coarsely. He wished to describe him impersonally, scientifically. "He judges and measures, approves and condemns, altogether by that."
"It's a happy thing then that his taste should be exquisite."
"It's exquisite, indeed, since it has led him to select you as his bride. But have you ever seen such a taste – a really exquisite one – ruffled?" (34.13)
Ralph hits upon the truth here: Osmond’s exquisite taste is what directs all of his actions, but it’s not to be confused with real, passionate emotion.
[Osmond’s] egotism had never taken the crude form of desiring a dull wife; this lady’s intelligence was to be a silver plate, not an earthen one – a plate that he might heap up with ripe fruits, to which it would give a decorative value, so that talk might become for him a sort of served dessert. He found the silver quality in this perfection in Isabel; he could tap her imagination with his knuckle and make it ring. (35.2)
Osmond is the pickiest collector out there – he won’t be happy with just a beautiful-but-stupid trophy wife, and instead seeks a woman who is both ornamental and intelligent, the ultimate collector’s item.
The real offence, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his – attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park. He would rake the soil gently and water the flowers; he would weed the beds and gather an occasional nosegay. It would be a pretty piece of property for a proprietor already far-reaching. (42.7)
Osmond assumed that Isabel’s mind would become a part of his upon their marriage, and that he could control every aspect of her identity just as he arranges objects or cultivates flowers (like Pansy).
"You’re certainly not fortunate in your intimates; I wish you might make a new collection." (47.8)
Osmond, talking about Isabel’s friends, assumes that everyone regards the people in their lives the same way he does – as mere items in a collection.
"One’s daughter should be fresh and fair; she should be innocent and gentle. With the manners of the present time she is liable to become so dusty and crumpled. Pansy’s a little dusty, a little dishevelled; she has knocked about too much." (50.17)
Osmond never thinks about Pansy’s feelings or desires – in fact, he doesn’t even acknowledge the fact that she has any. Instead, he continues to push her into the idealized mold he envisions for the perfect daughter doll.
His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession. (55.24)
Finally, Isabel feels real, all-encompassing, powerful passion. Everything she ever disliked about Caspar Goodwood now makes sense to her, and she gives in, just for a moment, to a sensual, glorious sensation of being possessed by a strong man – perhaps the right man.