Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1225
The Bostonians is the longest of Henry James’s novels in an American setting, and in spite of his later dissatisfaction with its middle section or the high promise given to the unfinished The Ivory Tower (1917), it is his most important fictive statement on America. The name and setting of the novel are significant; two other American novels, Washington Square (1880) and The Europeans (1878), are set in New York City and Boston respectively, and though The Bostonians begins in Charles Street and ends in the Music Hall in Boston, its second half begins in New York, which James always claimed as his native city. James had difficulty selecting a title for the work, but when he had settled on The Bostonians, he knew it precisely suited the contents and his meaning.
The best commentary on the work is found in James’s preface to the New York edition. James had several times tried to clarify a passage he had written in his life of Nathaniel Hawthorne, on what he believed that America offered and lacked with respect to writers. The Bostonians was James’s attempt to write on a subject that was at once local and typical, a local manifestation of a national trait. James chose that distinguishing feature of American life, the American woman, whom he had earlier encapsulated in Isabel Archer and other heroines. The settings he chose were the Boston of the early 1870’s and postabolitionist New York, with its atmosphere of exhausted triumph and its hectic pursuit of new reform movements, especially that of women’s rights. James’s general distaste for the reformers if not for their proposals may be sensed in his portraits in the novel.
The “Bostonians” may be variously identified as one, two, or more characters, but James uses the term only once to refer to Olive Chancellor and Verena Tarrant. Although James referred to Verena as the heroine, the true Bostonian is Olive, the embodiment of the clash between discrimination and undiscriminating action in Boston of the 1870’s. Destined by nature and appearance to be what was called a New England Nun, she becomes a Boston battler in the very last paragraph of the novel, haranguing a capacity crowd in Boston’s largest auditorium. She does so in place of Verena, who has been carried away by Basil Ransom. These three characters play out an ironic and psychologically penetrating form of the eternal triangle.
James seems to approve Verena’s fate, largely because she is unawakened throughout almost the whole novel; she remains a pretty young girl with no mind, and James shows little interest in her. Ransom is a Mississippian trying to revive the family plantation by practicing law in New York; he does not have ideas (until he begins to write reactionary articles) but lives by a code: Everyone must do his or her work well in one’s appointed station in life. When he tries to express this idea to Verena as they sit in Central Park, she is horrified and fascinated because there is no “progress” in his code. In the end, however, Ransom and Verena pair off as a fairly normal couple. What would become of Verena would have made a superb sequel to this work, but James did not know the South, and he treats it simply as the last reservoir of acceptable masculinity from which to pluck his hero.
Olive Chancellor is more of a known quantity for James. With no other family ties except those to her sister, comfortably settled in Charles Street, she has time, intelligence, taste, and money that she diffuses quietly through twenty committees and reform groups. She is the very portrait of a Boston lady; her tragic flaw is to allow her desire for real action to overrule her taste: She falls in love with Verena’s sweet stream of humbug as Ransom falls in love with Verena’s voice. This is not wholly Olive’s fault, as is shown by the gallery of Bostonians introduced at the suffragist party in Miss Birdseye’s tasteless apartment at the beginning of the novel. The two male Bostonians are a hack journalist and “Doctor” Selah Tarrant, a mesmeric healer and a fake not only to Ransom’s eyes but also to those of Dr. Prance, a woman doctor who is active in her role as “new woman” and who has little time for talking about the subject. As the real and fake doctors are contrasted, so is Dr. Prance contrasted with the suffragist campaigner Mrs. Farrinder, who is not a Bostonian and who is also suspicious of Tarrant and Verena’s “inspirational” views. Mrs. Farrinder’s weak husband shows what men will amount to and what Ransom is fighting in the new regime; Mrs. Farrinder, in thinking that talk will achieve the revolution Dr. Prance quietly demonstrates, shows the possible and probable results of Olive’s degeneration.
In addition, ranged about Olive in contrasting positions are three other Bostonians: Mrs. Luna, completely worldly and contemptuous of any womanly activity except that of the salon; Verena’s mother, equally worldly but totally vulgar; and Miss Birdseye, James’s favorite creation in the novel. At the age of eighty, she is still a compulsive reformer in a completely selfless and ineffectual manner that contrasts with the practical Dr. Prance and Mrs. Farrinder and with the worldly creatures of Boston and New York. She appears only three times in the novel: at the initial party that introduces most of the characters; when she plays the part of destiny in giving Ransom Verena’s Cambridge address; and at Olive’s summer cottage at Marmion, where she dies happily, mistakenly believing that Verena has enlisted Ransom in the cause. She stands for Boston’s true nature, which Olive ignores in trying to achieve a triumph through Verena.
In the second part of the novel, Olive compounds her failure of discrimination by accepting the invitation of Mrs. Burrage, a New York society host, to show off Verena in New York. Olive thinks she has triumphed in securing Verena’s promise not to marry and in diverting young Henry Burrage’s attentions from Verena, but she overreaches herself.
Verena is the fulcrum of the plot, and her affection first for Olive, then for Ransom, is reflected in the structure of the novel. The first twenty chapters contain Olive’s dinner with Ransom, Miss Birdseye’s party, Ransom’s call on Olive and Verena the next morning, and some months later a tea party at the Tarrants for Olive and, as it turns out, Henry Burrage. This first half of the novel concentrates on Olive’s developing affection for Verena. Verena, however, is incapable of decision or independent action, and in the second half of the novel, as Ransom takes center stage, she gradually falls under his influence.
Throughout the novel, the characteristic devices of James’s late middle style are apparent: lengthening paragraphs, alternating direct and indirect colloquy, and the use of idiomatic terms to carry nuances of meaning. More obvious, especially in the dramatic close, is the growing dependence on set scenes to show the stages of the drama. Over all these is the play of James’s irony and pity directed at the latter-day Bostonian Olive Chancellor, the local representation of a national type and the heroine of this distinctly American novel.
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