13 Henry James: The Bostonians

Mr. Mamud Hasan

epgp books


About the module:


This module deals with the novel The Bostonian by Henry James. It provides a short biographical note on the life of Henry James. It also presents a description of his various types of writings and the involvement in literary activities in various parts of Europe and United States. It offers the study of the novel The Bostonian by presenting various insights like background study of the novels, description of plot, theme and characterization, various techniques used in the novel etc. This module also discusses the writing style and techniques of Henry James in his various writings.

About the Author: The Bostonian by Henry James


Henry James, an American born British writer, was born in New York City on 15 April 1843 and died in 28 February 1916. He is considered as one of the key figures of 19th century literary realism. James was the son of Henry James, Sr. and the brother of William James and diarist Alice James. The first twenty years of his life he has travelled several times between Europe and America. During a 14 month trip through Europe in 1869–70, he personally met John Ruskin, Charles Dickens, Matthew Arnold, William Morris, and George Eliot. Rome impressed him profoundly. He attempted to support himself as a freelance writer in Rome, and was working as Paris correspondent for the New York Tribune. When these efforts failed, he returned back to New York City.


Henry James met with various American and European literary figures of his time. Some of them, Ivan Turgenev, Joseph Conrad, Oscar Wilde, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Edith Wharton, and Stephen Crane influenced his literary style and his beliefs.


His first published work was a review of a stage performance, “Miss Maggie Mitchell in Fan chon the Cricket,” published in 1863. About a year later, A Tragedy of Error, his first short story, was published. James got his first payment for valuing of Sir Walter Scott’s novels which was written for the North American Review. In 1870 he published his first novel, Watch and Ward. He was nominated thrice for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911, 1912 and 1916.

Works of Henry James:


The writing career of Henry James was one of the most productive and most influential in American literary histories. He has written 20 novels, 112 tales, 12 plays, volumes of travel writings and criticism, and a bucket of literary journalism in his long 51 years of writing period. Among James’s most famous literary works are The Europeans (1878), Daisy Miller (1878), critically acclaimed Washington Square (1880), The Bostonians (1886), and The Turn of the Screw (1898). In 1864, he wrote his first short story A Tragedy of Error. He wrote several fiction and nonfiction writings for The Nation and Atlantic Monthly. In 1870 he published his first novel, Watch and Ward. Some of his other exemplary works are:


Major Novels-

  • Roderick Hudson (1875)
  • The Portrait of a Lady (1881)
  • The Princess Casamassima (1986)
  • The Bostonians (1886)
  • The Turn of the Screw (1898)
  • The Wings of the Dove (1902)
  • The Wings of the Dove (1902)
  • The Ambassadors (1903)
  • The Golden Bowl (1904)

Short Narratives-


James was very much interested in what he called the “beautiful and blest nouvelle“, or the longer form of short narrative. Still, he produced a number of short stories in which he achieved notably compressed a variety of complex subjects. The following short narratives are some of the representatives of James’ contribution in the shorter forms of fiction.

  • “A Tragedy of Error” (1864), short story
  • “The Story of a Year” (1865), short story
  • A Passionate Pilgrim (1871), novella
  • Madame de Mauves (1874), novella
  • Daisy Miller (1878), novella
  • The Aspern Papers (1888), novella
  • The Lesson of the Master (1888), novella
  • The Pupil (1891), short story
  • “The Figure in the Carpet” (1896), short story
  • The Beast in the Jungle (1903), novella



At several points in his writing career James wrote several plays, starting with one act plays which were written for periodicals in 1869 and a dramatized form of his popular novella Daisy Miller in 1882. In 1892, the dramatization of his famous novel The American was published. Some of his well-known plays are:

  • Guy Domville (1895)
  • The High Bid (1907)
  • The Outcry (1911)



Beyond his fiction, Henry James was one of the most important literary critics in the history of the American literature. Some of his representative non-fiction works are:

  • The Art of Fiction (1884)
  • The Noble School of Fiction (1865)
  • Italian Hours (Travel writing)
  • The American Scene (Travel writing)
  • A Small Boy and Others (Autobiography)
  • Notes of a Son and Brother (Autobiography)
  • The Middle Years (unfinished)

James was one of the great letter writers of American history. More than ten thousand of his personal letters are available, and over three thousand letters have been published in many collections. A complete edition of James’s letters started publishing in 2006, edited by Pierre Walker and Greg Zacharias. As of 2014, eight volumes have been published, covering the period from 1855 to 1880.

Writing style of Henry James


Henry James is best known for a number of novels showing Americans encountering Europe and Europeans. His imaginative use of point of view, interior monologue and unreliable narrators brought a new depth to narrative fiction. His method of writing from a character’s point of view allowed him to explore issues related to consciousness and perception, and his style in later works has been compared to impressionist painting. By his mid-20s James was regarded as one of the most skilful writers of short stories in America. Critics, however, deplored his tendency to write of the life of the mind, rather than of action. His rendering of the inner life of his characters made him a forerunner of the “stream-of-consciousness” movement in the 20th century James is one of the major figures of trans-Atlantic literature. His works frequently compare characters from the Old World (Europe), embodying a feudal civilization that is beautiful, often corrupt, and alluring, and from the New World (United States), where people are often brash, open, and assertive and embody the virtues—freedom and a more highly evolved moral character—of the new American society. James explores this clash of personalities and cultures, in stories of personal relationships in which power is exercised well or badly.

It is noticed in his writing that he has increasingly abandoned direct statement in favour of frequent double negatives, and complex descriptive imagery. Single paragraphs began to run for page after page, in which an initial noun would be succeeded by pronouns surrounded by clouds of adjectives and prepositional clauses, far from their original referents, and verbs would be deferred and then preceded by a series of adverbs.


In his preface to the New York edition of The American he describes the development of the story in his mind as exactly such: the “situation” of an American, “some robust but insidiously beguiled and betrayed, some cruelly wronged, compatriot…” with the focus of the story being on the response of this wronged man.


He recognized and helped to fashion the myth of the American abroad and incorporated this myth in the “international novel,” of which he was the acknowledged master. His fundamental theme was that of an innocent, exuberant, and democratic America confronting the worldly wisdom and corruption of Europe’s older, aristocratic culture. In both his light comedies and his tragedies, James’s sense of the human scene was sure and vivid, and, despite the mannerisms of his later style, he was one of the great prose writers and stylists of his century.


Background of the Novel


The Bostonians was first published as a serial in The Century Magazine in 1885-1886, then as a three-volume novel in February 1886. As a Realist, he tried above all to convey the truth. In The Bostonians, he depicted what he saw as the decadence of New England culture in the late 19th century, epitomized by Boston in about 1875. Many men from the region had been killed in the Civil War, many more had left to go out West. Lesbianism was not discussed openly in the Victorian culture of that time and genteel Bostonians were defensive and mightily offended by The Bostonians, especially by its satirical tone. The novel was a commercial flop and James never set another novel in America. The novel is written in such a context when feminism movement was represented by two major organisations like National Women Suffrage Association and American Women Suffrage Association. Some of the characters in the novel are seen involved actively in the suffrage movement.

Setting of the Novel:


The Bostonian is generally regarded at the high point of what is called the ‘middle period’ of Henry James’ development as a novelist. The novel is set in Boston and New York; and it clearly reflects some of his contemporary impressions on the nation, written as a Native American. The novel includes some touching reflections on the Civil War, which had only concluded twenty years before. But its principle subject matter is its ‘women question’, the conflicts between traditional view of the role of women in society, and the views of suffragists and what today would be called supporters of women liberation.

Summary of the Work:


The Bostonians is a tragicomedy which portrayed three major odd characters as it protagonists. These three characters are: Basil Ransom, a political conservative from Mississippi; Olive Chancellor, Ransom’s cousin and a Boston feminist; and Verena Tarrant, a pretty, young girl, who is also a member of the feminist movement with Olive. The story of the novel covers the struggle between Ransom and Olive regarding the allegiance and the affection for each other.


Basil Ransom hails from Mississippi, a lawyer and Civil War veteran visits his cousin Olive Chancellor in Boston. Olive is one of the leading figures of the feminist movement in Boston. She has joined the suffrage movement because of her ideological interest. She is an advocate of women rights in Boston and was influenced by Miss Birdseye, a Black rights activist in her eighties.


Basil Ransom was invited by her cousin Olive to join her at a public gathering. Though he differs  with  the  ideas  of  suffragists,  he  agrees  to  attend  that  the  gathering,  where Mrs. Farrinder, a national spokesperson of feminist movement is supposed to speak. The Tarrant family was also attended the meeting. The family said that their daughter, Verena, has got amazing  talent  of  oratory  and  insisted  Miss  Birdseye  to  let  her  speak  to  the  gathering regarding   women   rights   movement.   The   crowd   got   overwhelmed   by   the  excellent performance of Verena. Olive sees a potential voice of women rights movement in her. Basil is impressed by her charm and beauty, though he dislikes the content of her speech.


 The following day, Basil leaves for New York and Olive goes to Verena’s home in Cambridge, in order to persuade her to become active in the movement in Boston. The Tarrant family expresses their disagreement in Olive’s proposal, but when she offers to pay the family, they allowed Verena to go with her. In chancellor house, Olive teaches Verena about the women rights movement. Over time, she becomes an expert in feminist doctrine. She tells Verena to forget about marriage and to use her precious talent and time for the cause.


Meanwhile, Mrs. Luna, Olive’s sister, writes a letter to Olive from New York, informing that she is giving responsibilities for her legal affairs to Basil Ransom. She is also trying to develop a personal relationship with him.


The story of the novel presents a triangle love among Olive, Verena and Basil. Although Olive never tries to confess in the novel that she loves Verena but when she realises that Basil Ransom is interested to Verena, she starts behaving differently and reacts rudely to everything that Basil does in regard to Verena.


After Ransom’s return to New York for his law practice he could not set his mind over there and returns to Boston again. He meets with Verena and started spending time with her. They both travel to various places together. Meanwhile, Verena also feels attraction for Ransom.


He proposes Verena although Olive is very unhappy with this advancement. Olive encourages Verena to search her own identity in a society dominated by men. She made Verena as a mouthpiece of women rights movement through which she can communicate  her ideas in order to bring reform in the society.


The novel has presented the conflict between the changing attitude of modern women and the on-going radical conservative society. Here in the novel, Basil Ransom represents the radical conservative society and Olive represents the second group. Verena is supposed to choose between these two. Verena seems very much confused with the development with Basil. After few meetings, she got impressed with him but she is unable to accept Basil’s ideas about women rights movement. Olive and Verena are actively taking part in the reform movement while Basil wants to reform the reformists. Verena even tells Olive that she is trying to hate her liking for him.


At the end of the novel, it is seen that Olive arranges a speech for Verena. Ransom reached to the venue before speech begins with the intention to elope. This public lecture has possibly career-defining implications for her. When she spots Basil before she walks out onto the stage, she loses it completely. His well-meaning surprise ultimately unravels everything. She is too rattled to give her speech and has to cancel it on the spot, which outrages everyone in attendance, implying the disgraceful end to her career. The very last line, the writer informs the reader that the speech is – ‘not to be the last’.

Some Important Characters:

Olive Chancellor


Olive Chancellor, the one of the three protagonists of the novel. She is presented in the novel as a champion of feminism ideology and an active member of the post-Civil War feminist movements in Boston. She is presented as a lesbian who is attracted to her protégée Verena. She is seen in the novel trying to win Verena against Ransom Basil, her cousin who is also attracted to her.

Verena Tarrant


Verena Tarrant, Olive’s protégée. An attractive young woman, Verena possesses few ideas of her own but is groomed for the cause of the woman suffrage movement. She is also a member of feminist movement and delivers speech is support of women rights. But Basil  Ransom falls in love with her and she also feels attractions to him. At the end of the novel it is seen that Olive arranges one public speech of Verena. But just before the speech, Basil reaches there; as a result she got nervous and cancelled the speech.

Basil Ransom


Basil Ransom, one of the three protagonists of the novel. He is the cousin of Olive, from Mississippi, a lawyer practicing in New York City. When Basil comes to Boston and attended one speech of Verena, though he disliked the content of the speech but he falls in love with Verena Tarrant’s voice, if not her ideas. When he returns to New York, realises that he is love with her. At the end of the novel he succeeds in persuading her to marry him. He believes that people must excel within their appointed stations in society.

Miss Birdseye


Miss Birdseye, an eighty year old reformer who is both sincere and ineffectual. Henry James’s favourite character, she dies believing that Basil Random has been persuaded of the need for a women’s movement.


Dr. PranceDr. Prance, a woman who is a doctor. She is more realistic and practical woman, who is doing more for the women’s rights movement than the suffragists or so called feminists.


Major Themes and Other Relevant Issues Discussed in the Work: 

The novel has discussed several themes such as struggle for love, The Civil War, Feminism, Lesbian love, contemporary social situation of Boston and so on. Some of these are:

Struggle for the loved one


It is rather a study of the woman question in this book. Instead of the old, familiar predicament of one heroine and two heroes, one of who must get and one lose the prize, the two heroes are a man and woman, but the struggle is of the same general character. Who is to have Verena? Shall it be Olive or Basil? That is the question which is asked with great particularity and at great length. The novel is divided into three books: in the first, Basil is barely introduced, but Olive and Verena are built up like a coral reef; in the second, the contesting parties manoeuvre for position; in the third, the conflict takes place, with what may be called a tussle in the end.

Feminist Politics


Two of the major women characters – Olive Chancellor and Mrs. Farrago – are directly involved in suffrage movement. They both are more concerned with social control mechanism and feeding their own egos than genuine concern for women as individuals. But this negative image is balanced by the characterisation of Doctor Prance and Miss Birdseye. Dr. Prance is a professional young woman who puts her ego to one side in pursuit of her interest in medicine and science and Miss Birdseye has a life history of genuine devotion to the cause. She has campaigned in the South for the abolition of slavery.

Lesbian Relationship


The novel represents the lesbian relationship of Verena and Olive. Olive is attracted to Verena and both are the member of feminist movement, the novel also has some kissing scene. During the Victorian period, such relationships often went no farther. The time this novel was written, this lesbian theme was not entertained openly in the American society. That could be one of the reason that Henry James could not dare to make Olive win instead of Basil.

Civil War


Civil war is one of the important themes in the novel. Basil Ransom is from Mississippi, and fought in the Civil War. In fact, his family lost their property because of the war. There are several instances in the novel where the discussions of Southern people and Northern people, Southern states and Northern states have been mentioned. There is a character called Miss Birdseye who was involved in anti-slavery movement.

Paradoxical Element


Maria Jacobson in her article “Popular Fiction and Henry James’s Unpopular Bostonians” (1976) says that Henry James’s The Bostonians (1886) is paradoxical in a number of ways: it is genuinely funny but terribly cruel in its attack on Boston life; it is diffuse in manner (both James and his contemporaries observed that he had spent too long analysing his characters and their behaviour) yet incisively critical; it is a romance with an unhappy ending; and, as I will suggest, it uses the configurations of popular literature to voice an unpopular idea.”



Henry James uses third person omniscient narrative in most part of the novel, where he knows all the events that take place and he reveals the inner feelings and thoughts of his characters. But from time to time he slips into a first person narrative mode to pretend that he has only a partial view of events.

Summary of the Module


The module has tried to present a brief description of the life of Henry James. It includes a short biographical note of Henry James, which is followed by a brief discussion on his works. This module has presented works of Henry James and enlisted them according the genre of these works. The writing styles and various types of techniques used in his writings are also included. It has provided a background study of the novel The Bostonians. It has also presented a summary of the novel and a brief description on some of the major characters of the novel.

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