75 pages 2 hours read

Henry James

The Bostonians

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1886

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Summary and Study Guide


The Bostonians, by American-born author Henry James, was first published as a serial in 1885-1886 and then as a full novel in 1886. Henry James wrote in the tradition of realism, a late-19th century movement that was a response to Romanticism and Transcendentalism. On the surface, The Bostonians is about the competition between a Northern feminist, Olive Chancellor, and a Southern conservative, Basil Ransom, to win the attention of a young woman named Verena Tarrant: Olive wants to enlist her in the cause, and Basil wants to make her a traditional wife. However, at its core, The Bostonians is about how post-Civil War America was torn between traditional and modern values. The novel is ambivalent about progress, showing Basil’s views as old-fashioned and obsolete, and the feminists’ tactics as oppressive, spiteful, and unreasonable. By exploring the inner lives of the characters, the novel comments on the effects of Reconstruction, which sought to ease the Confederate states back into the Union and to rebuild the devastated South. Neither critics nor readers received The Bostonians well, and James did not write another novel focused on political themes. This guide refers to the Penguin Classics edition edited by Richard Lansdown.

Basil Ransom is a young Confederate veteran who, when his family loses their fortune after the Civil War, moves to New York City to establish a law practice. Invited to visit the Boston home of his affluent cousin Olive Chancellor, he waits in her parlor and chats with Olive’s widowed sister Adeline Luna. Adeline warns Basil, a conservative who prefers passive women, that Olive is a staunch feminist.

Olive and Basil go to the home of philanthropist Miss Birdseye, where they hear a speech by a young feminist named Verena Tarrant. The guests are enraptured—most of all Basil. Though he despises the subject of her speech, her beauty mesmerizes him. Olive, also moved, invites Verena to visit her at home. Basil and Verena meet once in Olive’s house before Basil returns to New York; he teases her and counters her feminist beliefs.

Verena, encouraged by her social-climbing mother, frequently visits Olive, and the two form a partnership to work for women’s equality. Olive, who has long sought a close female friendship, greatly enjoys her intimate study time with Verena but is increasingly worried by Verena’s flirtations with men. Older and stronger willed than Verena, Olive coerces Verena to promise never to marry. Enthralled with Olive and seeking to impress her, Verena declines proposals from Mr. Matthias Pardon and Mr. Henry Burrage despite secretly wishing to accept. To ensure Verena does not marry, Olive takes her to Europe.

In New York, Basil lives in poverty, having failed to grow his law practice or publish his politically themed articles. Mrs. Luna, who has a growing romantic interest in him, has tried to hire him to care for her affairs and to tutor her spoiled son. However, Mrs. Luna’s imprecations about Basil not responding to her letters makes him increasingly irritated. One day Mrs. Luna tells him that Verena and Olive are back in America after their European voyage. The news revives Basil’s interest in Verena.

When Basil finds himself in Boston for business, he avoids Olive but visits Verena at her parents’ house. The two walk around Cambridge. Despite his continued derision of the feminist movement, Verena feels a connection with Basil. Though she has never kept a secret from Olive, she decides not tell Olive she has gone out with Basil.

When back in New York, Basil receives an invitation to go to Mrs. Burrage’s house to see Verena speak. Mrs. Luna interrogates Basil about his relationship with Verena, forcing him to hint that he saw her in Cambridge. As he watches Verena, Basil finds her beauty captivating and can almost ignore the content of what she is saying. The next day, feeling resentful that Basil has rejected her, Mrs. Luna plants seeds in Olive’s mind that Basil and Verena’s relationship is stronger than they have let on.

A tense day follows as Olive attempts to extract from Verena how close she is with Basil and Verena struggles to withhold her secret. Olive questions Verena’s dedication to the cause and suggests they leave New York earlier than planned. They quarrel again later when Verena receives a note from Basil.

Olive visits Mrs. Burrage, who offers a large check and asks Olive to allow Verena to stay with her. She also suggests Verena marry Mrs. Burrage’s son. When Olive hesitates, Mrs. Burrage frightens Olive by reminding her that if Verena does not marry her son, she will be prey for Basil. When Olive returns home, she finds that Verena has gone out with Basil.

Basil attempts to convince Verena of the folly of feminism. When he suggests she does not believe what she says in her speeches, Verena goes home offended. She begs Olive to take her back to Boston.

Months later, Basil goes to Cape Cod to find Verena, who is there with Olive. Also with the women is Miss Birdseye, with whom Olive and Verena have grown close. Basil demands that Verena spend some time with him every day and tries to prevent her from speaking at the Boston Music Hall in the winter. Despite Olive’s attempts to keep them apart, Verena decides she loves Basil and must give up her work. When Miss Birdseye passes away, however, guilt over abandoning the cause inspires Verena to reject Basil’s proposal. Basil is surprised and angry when Olive tells him Verena has left and that he will never find her.

In the winter, Basil goes to the Boston Music Hall to prevent Verena from speaking. When it becomes clear Verena is going to leave with him, Olive goes to the platform to mollify the audience. Verena is in tears as they leave.