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Picturesque Misperception in The Bostonians by Robert K. Martin, Concordia University No reader of The Bostonians can miss the symbolism of Miss Birdseye's name, coinciding so neatly with her "weak" eyes (BO 26) and a head that "looked as if it had been soaked, blurred, and made vague by exposure to some slow dissolvent" (BO 27). Bearing in mind her rather hazy vision, one is not surprised toward the end of the novel when she sees Basil and Verena walking together and totally misinterprets the meaning of their walk: "She watched them a little, and it warmed her heart to see the stiff-necked young Southerner led captive by a daughter of New England trained in the right school, who would impose her opinions in their integrity" (BO 378). No one has the heart to correct her, and so the dying woman is allowed to believe in this wishful, and false, vision. She sees what she wants to see, replacing reality by a dream. In this she is no different from any of the three major characters in the novel. Each of them has faulty vision and allows desire to overcome accurate perception. It is this sustained misperception that is James's real subject in The Bostonians, of which the feminism so hotly debated both within and without the novel is but one vehicle. The Bostonians is one of a great number of James novels in which one of the principal characters is dominated by faulty vision that is associated with a tendency to Romanticism. In most of the novels this characteristic is linked to reading, through either direct reference or implication. Isabel Archer's Romantic fantasies make her incapable of judging Gilbert Osmond accurately; the governess in The Turn of the Screw produces her visions out of her stock of Gothic nightmares; the heroine of "In the Cage" invents Romantic stories for her clients as fantastic as the dreams of her own future; Maggie in The Golden Bowl inhabits a world of fairy tale from which she is rather rudely awakened by her Prince. Closer to the time, and the spirit, of The Bostonians, Hyacinth Robinson in The Princess Casamassima is dominated by two contrary myths, corresponding to his two parents: the myth of true nobility, or the aristocratic father, and the myth of the oppressed people, or the virtuous if fallen mother. Between the two, Hyacinth finds only death. These stories of a misplaced and dangerous faith in Romantic illusions had particular power for James because they coincided with his own inclinations. It is as if over and over again he enacted the drama of his own situation, rejecting not only the Transcendentalist idealism of his father, but also his own Stendhalian 78 The Henry James Review tendencies, for a chastened realism that might permit the emergence of a mature self.1 In The Bostonians the theme of misperception is rendered particularly effectively through a series of landscape scenes, each of which dramatizes the character's inability to read experience accurately. The scenes are placed at strategic points in the novel so that they become determining factors in the way the reader experiences the character experiencing. They place us inside the minds of the characters, though the words are James's, so that we feel the temptation to misread along with them. Accompanying the satirical political discourse of the novel, these landscape passages employ the visual as a way of judging the moral. They make use of the critical term "picturesque" as a key concept in defining an aesthetic based on surfaces and incapable of penetrating the inner moral life beneath them. James, following Ruskin, distinguished between a shallow picturesque and a deeper, more spiritual version, while using the term in general to depict an incomplete vision lacking spiritual perception. The first of these scenes is presented at the beginning of chapter 3, when Basil is alone in Olive's Charles Street house. Looking out over the river, he sees "an horizon indented at empty intervals with wooden spires, the masts of lonely boats, the chimneys of dirty 'works,' over a brackish expanse of anomalous character, which is too big for a river and too small for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 77-86
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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