The Bostonians Analysis

Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Boston

*Boston. Massachusetts’s capital and leading city, known in this novel mainly as the city of reform and feminist views, which one character refers to as “Boston ideas.”

*Charles Street

*Charles Street. Fashionable Boston street on which Olive Chancellor, the novel’s central feminist figure, lives. Near the even more fashionable Beacon Street. Because of where she lives, the wealthy Olive is expected to move in fashionable circles, but she has cut herself off from that milieu in order to be a reformer.

Olive’s house

Olive’s house. Boston residence of Olive Chancellor; a place of strange, narrow rooms, perhaps suggesting something strange and narrow about Olive’s life and ideas. The house is full of books and fashionable objects, and yet seems not entirely comfortable, as if embodying a conflict in Olive between expensive tastes and a self-denying dedication to a cause. Olive’s windows provide a view of distant, ugly, impoverished parts of Boston, perhaps to show, by contrast, how comfortable Olive is materially. Somewhat oddly, Olive’s companion, Verena, finds the view lovely, perhaps suggesting that however impoverished those parts of Boston may be, they are richer metaphorically than Olive’s house of narrow rooms.

Miss Birdseye’s rooms

Miss Birdseye’s rooms. Site of a feminist meeting in Boston to which Olive takes her cousin, Basil Ransom, and where they both meet the inspirational speaker, Verena Tarrant. The rooms, which belong to Miss Birdseye, an old reformer in decline, are in a boardinghouse in the South End, a part of Boston in decline. They are much less elegant than Olive’s house, and Olive thinks that Birdseye lacks taste. However, the point seems to be that Birdseye is quite at home in plain rooms because she is more interested in causes than in taste—unlike Olive, who is in conflict because...

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The Bostonians Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Anderson, Charles R. “James’s Portrait of the Southerner.” In On Henry James: The Best from American Literature, edited by Louis J. Budd and Edwin H. Cady. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.

Bell, Millicent. “The Determinate Plot: The Bostonians.” In Meaning in Henry James. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. Bell compares The Bostonians with other James novels and argues that it serves as an ironic rejection of naturalism.

Bowen, Janet Wolf. “Architectural Envy: A Figure Is Nothing Without a Setting in Henry James’s The Bostonians.” New England Quarterly 65, no. 1 (March, 1992): 3-23. By focusing on the architectural imagery of the novel, Bowen points out that the novel depicts conflicts between inner life and public persona.

Davis, Sara de Saussure. “Feminist Sources in The Bostonians.” In On Henry James: The Best from American Literature, edited by Louis J. Budd and Edwin H. Cady. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.

Faderman, Lillian. “Female Same-Sex Relationships in Novels by Longfellow, Holmes, and James.” New England Quarterly 51, no. 3 (September, 1978): 309-332. A feminist perspective on the novel that focuses on the contrasting treatment James gives to Verena’s relationships with Basil and with Olive.

Howe, Irving. Introduction to The Bostonians, by Henry James. New York: Modern Library, 1956.

Samuels, Charles. The Ambiguity of Henry James. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1971.

Jacobson, Marcia. “Popular Fiction and Henry James’s Unpopular Bostonians.” Modern Philology 73, no. 3 (February, 1976): 264-275. Focuses on the novel as a political work and examines it in the context of the social and political consequences of the Civil War and the emerging women’s movement.

Wagenknecht, Edward. “Explorations: The Bostonians; The Princess Casamassima; The Tragic Muse; and Reverberater.” In The Novels of Henry James. New York: Felix Ungar, 1983. This chapter, in a book which provides general background on James’s life and works, places the novel in a biographical context.