The Bostonians Summary

Introduction

Henry James’s novel The Bostonians, published as a serial in The Century Magazine in 1885-1886, then in book form in 1886, marks the beginning of James’s middle career. By this time, James has vowed never to return to New York because of the growing emphasis on commercialism. James's personal loss of the past becomes a theme in The Bostonians through the character of Basil Ransom, a Southerner from post-Civil War Mississippi, who has come to live in New York. Visiting in Boston, he runs into a group of radical reformers (including his cousin, Olive Chancellor) who have taken up the cause of women's rights, now that the abolition of slavery has been accomplished. Despite Ransom's conviction that this group was responsible prior to the war for sparking the anger of the South toward the North, he is drawn to members of the group. He is attracted to Verena Tarrant, an exceptionally beautiful young woman who is a rising star of the women's rights movement, yet he does not admire her opinions. Olive is also drawn to Verena, establishing herself obsessively as Verena's professional and personal manager. Olive’s control over Verena leads to an odd triangle among the two women and Ransom. The struggle over Verena forms the conflict between Ransom and Olive, each representative of an opposing philosophy and indeed an opposing world.

The Bostonians was not well received by the public, either in Europe or in America. The unflattering portrayal of the Boston reformers especially aroused the ire of the reading public in the United States. James’s bitterness over this reception lasted for years. Instead of novels, James focused on writing dramas, none of which did well. It was not until 1897 that he returned to fiction with What Maisie Knew, followed by his classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, a year later.

The Bostonians Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Unlike many of Henry James’s novels, The Bostonians is set in the United States. Its female characters are involved in the reform movement that swept New England during the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the novel, James presents compelling but not sympathetic characters. A central figure in the reform movement is Olive Chancellor, a proponent of women’s rights, a movement upon which her identity is based. Presumably, American educator Elizabeth Peabody was James’s prototype for Olive. Olive is inspired by Miss Birdseye, an abolitionist in her eighties, and seeks to become a force in the women’s reform movement.

Lacking the articulateness required to be a successful spokesperson, Olive latches onto Verena Tarrant, an attractive but docile young woman who has received some public notice on account of her association with her mesmerist father’s public performances. Olive liberates Verena from her squalid surroundings, bringing her to the Beacon Street house in which she lives.

Verena, never encouraged to find her own identity in a world dominated by men, becomes the mouthpiece through which Olive can communicate her ideas of reform to audiences. Verena tries to remain loyal to Olive, who tyrannizes her. The two live together, travel together, and move toward sharing a single identity, one constructed wholly by Olive. Olive, if viewed in the light of modern psychoanalytical theory, has a lesbian attraction to the...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

The Bostonians Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Olive Chancellor, a Boston activist in the women’s movement, is entertaining her cousin Basil Ransom, a Mississippian who lives in New York City. She invites him to join her at a gathering at the home of Miss Birdseye, a leader in the movement. Though he disagrees with the ideals of the feminists, Ransom accepts, partly out of curiosity and partly to meet Mrs. Farrinder, a national spokesperson for women’s rights. At Miss Birdseye’s, Ransom expresses his views on the movement to Dr. Prance, a woman who is successful in a traditionally male profession. Olive, becoming aware that Ransom opposes all she stands for, develops a strong animosity toward her cousin.

In attendance also at Miss Birdseye’s are the Tarrants, a family supported by the father’s lectures on mesmerism; the Tarrants claim that their daughter Verena has a special gift for oratory, and they persuade Miss Birdseye to let her speak to the group about the women’s movement. Everyone is captivated by Verena’s performance. Olive immediately recognizes that the young woman has a future as a public figure promoting women’s rights. Ransom is smitten with Verena’s beauty and charm. Both speak briefly to Verena after her performance.

Ransom is forced to return immediately to New York, but Olive goes to the Tarrants’ home in Cambridge on the following day to try to persuade Verena to become active in the women’s movement in Boston. The Tarrants are anxious to comply, Mr. Tarrant seeing this as a way to make money, and Mrs. Tarrant believing that it would provide an opportunity for her daughter to move into high society. Although Verena is being wooed by several young men, including the Harvard student Henry Burrage and the journalist Matthias Pardon, she agrees to collaborate with Olive. Over time, the two became inseparable, and Olive eventually enters into a financial arrangement with the Tarrants to permit Verena to live at the Chancellor home. There, Olive educates her protégé in feminist doctrine. Olive is insistent that Verena abandon all thoughts of marriage and devote her energies to the cause. After years of dominating women, she declares that “men must take their turn” as objects of domination and that “they must pay!”

During this time, Ransom is struggling to practice law in New York. He spends his...

(The entire section is 955 words.)

The Bostonians Summary and Analysis

Chapters 1 and 2 Summary and Analysis

Summary

Basil Ransom has come to Boston in order to visit his cousin, Olive Chancellor. Originally from Mississippi, Basil left his financial holdings in the hands of his mother and sister and moved to New York City, eventually becoming a lawyer. On his arrival at Olive’s home, he is met by Mrs. Luna (Adeline), Olive’s sister. Greeting him very familiarly, Mrs. Luna tells Basil that Olive will be down in around ten minutes. Olive would not give an exact time, because she was not sure she could be exact, and did not want to lie. Mrs. Luna’s indication, according to Basil, is that she herself would fib at some point in time. Basil states that he pretends not to prevaricate.

Olive is on her way to a meeting. Mrs. Luna informs Basil that her sister is a “roaring radical.” Basil is concerned, since he has little interest in "reform" as practiced in the North. Mrs. Luna, however, says that the problem is not Boston itself; it is just Olive. Shocked that he does not already know, Mrs. Luna informs Basil that she lived in Europe for several years after her husband's death. She has now returned to America with her son, Newton.

At this point, Olive Chancellor enters the room. Mrs. Luna tells her to reform Basil, as someone from Mississippi is sure to be all wrong. Leaving to attend a theatre-party, she suggests on her way out that Olive take Basil to Olive's “female convention.”

The narrator reveals himself to be informed about the “occult." He reveals that Mrs. Luna is “personal,” implying that she keeps to herself and does not involve herself in anyone else’s interests. As for Olive, Basil can see that she is a person “who takes things hard.” He is not impressed with her feminist proclivities: he believes that women should be private and leave publicity to the men. Yet Olive is always on the lookout for duties to perform. It is for this reason she contacted Basil when she found that her Southern cousin had moved North. She invited him to visit the first chance that his business brought him to Boston. She knew that during the Civil War her mother had wanted to send money...

(The entire section is 880 words.)

Chapters 3 and 4 Summary and Analysis

Summary

At dinner with Olive, Basil Ransom observes that her home is decorated in the sense of “organised privacy.” He believes this organization, and this privacy, are the signature characteristics of Boston and that Olive Chancellor is the epitome of the unmarried woman. Just as Olive has a public vision of reform, Basil has a private vision, to reform the reformers.

Olive had invited Basil to attend with her a meeting at the home of Miss Birdseye, an pre-Civil War abolitionist and one of the leading reformers for women’s rights. Now, however, having come to know him a bit better, Olive regrets asking him, as she is fairly sure that he will not be sympathetic. She asks him if he...

(The entire section is 869 words.)

Chapters 5 and 6 Summary and Analysis

Summary

Although she is the central focus of the gathering, Mrs. Farrinder does not feel like addressing the group. She says that she wants to sit back and hear what others have to say. She suggests that Olive Chancellor should speak. Olive has mixed feelings. She notices that as grand as Mrs. Farrinder is, she has an edge of unfamiliarity with Boston society that grates on Olive’s nerves. She seems “provincial,” and not quite of the greater world as her position in society dictates. Olive feels that she herself has a significant advantage in dealing with the higher social class. She wants desperately to help the lowest class and to find some poor girl to help. However, the shop girls with...

(The entire section is 947 words.)

Chapters 7 and 8 Summary and Analysis

Summary

With some trepidation, Olive takes Basil to meet Mrs. Farrinder. She knows that the two are on opposite poles of the reform issue. Mrs. Farrinder invites him to speak to the gathering on the situation of women in the South, but horrified by the thought, he declines. Mrs. Farrinder claims that the South is closed to the reformists and that she had been advised to avoid going there to speak. Verena Tarrant says that she had some success in St. Louis recently, but, as one of the ladies argues, that is hardly the South. Verena is introduced to Mrs. Farrinder and is almost overcome with emotion upon meeting her idol. Mr. Pardon, a young magazine writer, says that Verena speaks marvelously and quite...

(The entire section is 932 words.)

Chapters 9 and 10 Summary and Analysis

Summary

After Verena’s “performance,” the entire crowd is spellbound, including Mrs. Farrinder. Basil asks Miss Birdseye if she would introduce him to Verena. Miss Birdseye agrees. She is pleased that Basil is impressed. However, at this moment Olive announces that she has to leave, claiming to feel unwell. Ransom is disappointed, as he feels obliged to leave with Olive. He asks her if she is really willing to miss the chance to hear Mrs. Farrinder speak. Mrs. Farrinder herself asks Olive to stay. She begs her to remember Beacon Street, as if Olive is a missionary of the women’s movement to the elite of Boston. Olive declares fiercely that she is sick of the elite and bids good-bye to everyone....

(The entire section is 752 words.)

Chapters 11 and 12 Summary and Analysis

Summary

Verena goes to visit Olive as her mother suggested. Olive feels she had known with a divine certainty that she would come, as surely as she had known that, if she proceeded to take Basil with her to Miss Birdseye’s home, she was crossing a threshold and drawing some harm onto herself.

Verena wears a jacket with large gilt buttons, an outfit she thinks is remarkably attractive, but which Olive finds vulgar. Olive immediately overwhelms Verena with her passionate desire for someone with whom she might have a female “union of soul.” Verena tells Olive that perhaps she likes her too much, to which Olive agrees. Olive bluntly tells Verena that she does not want to know Mr. and Mrs....

(The entire section is 932 words.)

Chapters 13 and 14 Summary and Analysis

Summary

Verena goes to Olive’s home frequently, with her mother’s encouragement and often with her mother. Mrs. Tarrant sees the opportunities that might come with Verena’s association with one of the upper class of Boston society. While Mrs. Tarrant hopes that Verena will some day get married to someone in the public eye, she sees the advantage of having a close friendship with a woman such as Olive Chancellor, who has money and who is interested in reform. She sees that, although Verena may be married, she might want a place to serve as a type of retreat, or in fact to be a second home.

Verena has at last come to value Olive’s companionship. Although she was at first a bit put off...

(The entire section is 912 words.)

Chapters 15 and 16 Summary and Analysis

Summary

As Olive dines with the Tarrants, she becomes increasingly aware of the shabby life that her protégé, Verena, must suffer. The unattractive house is located on a dilapidated street; little has been done in the way of improvements. She is more in awe of the fact that two such despicable characters should produce such as marvel as Verena. She hates the thought that Mr. Tarrant must lay his hands on Verena in order for her to perform, although Verena insinuated that it was for his benefit rather than for hers.

She observes a fellow guest, Mr. Pardon, the magazine writer, who strikes her as odd but dangerous, as in a threat to her relationship with Verena. He has evidently accompanied...

(The entire section is 1012 words.)

Chapters 17 and 18 Summary and Analysis

Summary

At their next meeting, Verena states that she is now ready to promise Olive that she will not marry. However, Olive has now changed her mind about forcing a promise out of Verena, and tells her that she is going through a phase now, when young men might show an interest in her. It is up to Verena to decide what she wants for her future as far as matrimony is concerned. Olive does not want to make the choice for her own sake. Although she believes that the two of them are called to service, just as celibate priests are, she will leave that decision up to Verena. Verena is impressed with Olive’s speech and states that she could sway audiences if she would just let herself go. But Olive cannot do...

(The entire section is 933 words.)

Chapters 19 and 20 Summary and Analysis

Summary

Mrs. Luna, Olive’s sister, writes from her new home in New York that she is turning over her legal affairs to Basil Ransom, with whom she is also evidently trying to develop a more personal relationship. She is considering asking him to give up his law career and become the tutor of her son, Newton. Olive thinks this is typical of her sister, that people would go out of their way to accede to her need for special arrangements. Olive is content that the two are together and out of her way. She has little love for her sister, and little respect for her cousin. In addition, Olive’s life is taking a turn for the better, as Verena has now come to live with her.

Olive had been...

(The entire section is 955 words.)

Chapters 21 and 22 Summary and Analysis

Summary

Basil Ransom has not found the success in the law profession as he had hoped. A year after his trip to Boston, he is living in a two-room tenement, has very few cases and little luck with those. He has come close to deciding that he cannot make a living, in New York and definitely not in Mississippi. Despite his difficulties, he is tries to send money home to his family, who are living closer to destitution. He is not sure if it is his Southern accent or his ability that is putting people off. He spends his time reading politics and history, with the hopes of writing some news articles on the subject. He has many ideas that he wants to make public, but he has no success; in fact, he is told that...

(The entire section is 892 words.)

Chapters 23 and 24 Summary and Analysis

Summary

As luck would have it, Basil is called to Boston for several days to attend to some legal business. Being busy at first, it is not until the fourth day that he makes an attempt to see Verena. He decides he does not want to visit her at Olive’s home on Charles Street, as he knows that Olive has nothing but contempt for him. Wandering around town, he hopes to see some sign indicating that she is giving one of her speeches, but he sees none. Remembering that Verena had invited him to visit her in her home in Cambridge, he decides to try there, but he does not know the exact street. On his way to Cambridge he passes by Olive’s house and considers ringing at the door to ask the servant the...

(The entire section is 890 words.)

Chapters 25 and 26 Summary and Analysis

Summary

As Basil and Verena walk toward Harvard College, Basil notices the houses go from shabby wooden shacks to more elaborately decorated homes, complete with brick pavements and house numbers. Basil asks Verena about the women’s convention, but she doubts his true interest since he is against the reform movement. He says that he does not like it and he fears it. He sees that she was excited to be a part of it and mentions that she would miss it if she “returned to the ancient fold,” meaning to his own beliefs concerning women’s role in society. He feels angry at the thought of Verena involved with people whom he refers to as “carpet-baggers,” which, to the Southern mind, are a...

(The entire section is 899 words.)

Chapters 27 and 28 Summary and Analysis

Summary

Mrs. Luna confronts Basil, asking him why he is at Mrs. Burrage’s gathering. In reply, Basil asks Mrs. Luna why she has come. He knows it could not be for his sake, since she did not know that he was coming. She says that she assumed that he would be here because Miss Tarrant would be speaking. She herself has no interest in the “chatterbox,” so he is indeed her reason for coming. Basil states that he supposes that Olives asked that an invitation be sent to him, but Mrs. Luna knows how her sister feels about their cousin, so this is unlikely.

Mrs. Luna obviously will not let him go, although he desperately wants to hear Verena speak. She guesses that, and so keeps him by her...

(The entire section is 929 words.)

Chapters 29 and 30 Summary and Analysis

Summary

The next morning, Mrs. Luna visits Olive in order to determine who exactly sent Basil Ransom the invitation to Mrs. Burrage’s gathering the night before. Olive denies that she had been the one to invite him. Mrs. Luna knows how she feels about him now, but at the beginning she was the one who brought him into their lives. Olive believes that Mrs. Luna has come just to make herself disagreeable, but she admits that inviting Basil to call on her in Boston was a mistake, done simply because she believed her mother would have done so. She also thought that he and Mrs. Luna would have been married by now. Mrs. Luna acts shocked that Olive would think she would marry anyone just because he “hung...

(The entire section is 969 words.)

Chapters 31 and 32 Summary and Analysis

Summary

On the return of Olive and Verena to their hotel, they find a letter for each of them. Verena takes her letter to the privacy of her room, leaving the one for Olive on the hall table. She knows who it is from and what it is about, and this knowledge makes her feel treacherous in regards to Olive. It is from Basil, asking to meet her the next day. Talking to Olive, she tells her the contents of the letter, but says that, since they are returning to Boston the next day, it is of no consequence. Olive, however, says they need to return quickly, as her letter is from Mrs. Burrage, urging her to let Verena stay with her for a long visit in New York. Verena is eager to stay, but does not want to upset...

(The entire section is 1045 words.)

Chapters 33 and 34 Summary and Analysis

Summary

Basil asks Verena to come out for a walk with him. However, Verena is unwilling for some reason, although she realizes that in Cambridge she had no qualms about doing so. But at that time, it was she who did the asking; it is different somehow when it is Basil making the request. He says that he wants to show her New York just as she wanted to show him Harvard. More than anything, he does not want to face the possibility of seeing Olive Chancellor. Verena tells him that she has seen it; she went for a ride there the day before with a friend. Basil understands her to mean that the friend was Henry Burrage. He insists that he wants to say some very important things to her. Verena does not feel...

(The entire section is 920 words.)

Chapters 35 and 36 Summary and Analysis

Summary

Spring has turned into summer. In August, Basil leaves the heat of New York for Cape Cod, Massachusetts, for the purpose of winning Verena Tarrant. As he walks to the nearest hotel on the beach, he is struck by the surroundings: nothing seems to be growing. It just as if everything has stopped at one moment in time. At the shabby hotel, he sees that there are very few other guests. In the evening, he goes for a walk on the beach and runs into Doctor Prance. She is staying with Olive and Verena. Miss Birdseye is also a guest, but her health is extremely poor.

Doctor Prance and Basil pick up their relationship where it had left off two years before. The met the night Verena Tarrant...

(The entire section is 929 words.)

Chapters 37 and 38 Summary and Analysis

Summary

Basil stays at Cape Cod for a month. Each day he walks with Verena, which is the limit on which she has placed their contact. She despises his views on the reform movement as much as ever, and she relies on Olive to keep her from succumbing to Basil’s entreaties. She admits that she likes him more than any gentleman she knows, but she does not want to marry him. She wants to hate her liking of him. She regrets running away from New York and believes that she should have shown more moral courage by standing up to him. Olive notices this new maturity and strength about her friend.

Basil had planned his walk with Verena in New York to be his final attempt to win her. After that, he...

(The entire section is 966 words.)

Chapters 39 and 40 Summary and Analysis

Summary

The next morning Basil meets Doctor Prance and discovers that Miss Birdseye passed away about an hour after he left. Doctor Prance is returning to Boston, as she has patients waiting for her. He receives a note from Verena, stating that he must not expect to see her for a few days. She want to be alone to think. She asks him to leave for a while, so he goes to nearby Provincetown. Eventually, he returns to the cottage. Verena comes out to tell him that it is impossible that the two of them should be together after all. Infuriated, Basil takes her out in a boat to talk to her alone.

Olive is calm in the face of this, knowing that Verena has once again vowed to stay with her. Yet as...

(The entire section is 910 words.)

Chapters 41 and 42 Summary and Analysis

Summary

For two hours, Basil walks around town, continually passing the Music Hall. Posters of Verena cover the outside, but there is no sign of Verena herself. He goes in and waits as the crowds fill up the immense auditorium. He goes backstage and asks that his card be sent to Verena with a request that he might see her before she begins to speak. The guard tells him that he is not allowed to let Basil in, on orders from Olive Chancellor. As he argues with the guard, Mr. Pardon comes backstage, also wanting to see Verena. He is turned away as well, as the time has now come for the program to start. Basil, hearing the organ music, tries to tell the guard that the organist is under orders to keep...

(The entire section is 997 words.)

Michael Foster, Ed. Scott Locklear