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  • Narrative Discourse and the Imperative of Sympathy in The Bostonians
  • Michael Kearns

And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud.

(Whitman, “Song of Myself”)

Seven chapters into The Bostonians, the narrating voice describes Basil Ransom’s reaction to the feminist meeting at the home of Miss Birdseye:

He was conscious of all these middle-aged feminine eyes, conscious of curls, rather limp, that depended from dusky bonnets, of heads poked forward, as if with a waiting, listening, familiar habit, of no one being very bright or gay—no one, at least, but that girl he had noticed before, who had a brilliant head, and who now hovered on the edge of the conclave. He met her eye again; she was watching him too.


This is the fourth slight mention of the girl in a space of ten pages—slight but significant because of the repetition. Verena Tarrant, as she will be introduced a few paragraphs later, has drawn not only Basil’s attention but that of his cousin, Olive Chancellor: “‘Who is that charming creature?’ Basil Ransom heard his cousin ask, in a grave, lowered tone” (47).

These brief references establish the conflict which structures the novel’s most visible plot: Olive and Basil competing for possession of this “creature,” this “brilliant head,” or, in the narrator’s words, this “fresh young voice” (45). Both the young Southern gentleman and the Boston blue-blood feel themselves immediately attracted to Verena; as their competition develops, Basil will want to have her adorn his house, while Olive wants her to serve the cause of women. The way Verena is edged into the story, onto a stage already dominated by vital, active, and [End Page 162] strong-willed individuals, also constitutes an aspect of the narrative discourse, distinct from the story and serving a specific ethical purpose: to invite a judgment of the narrator as guilty of a lack of sympathy for Verena. These invitations occur throughout The Bostonians and mark it as deserving inclusion among what Wayne Booth, in The Company We Keep, terms “the interesting cases—the fictions that . . . invite conversation that might itself prove ethically educational” (206–07). The novel invites me to “behave better” while reading than I’m usually able to do in my complex daily life (255), and (to paraphrase another of Booth’s tests) to realize that I would not want either of my daughters to marry Basil Ransom or be taken up by Olive Chancellor, even though while reading the novel I find Olive and Basil interesting, perhaps even tragic. Nor would I want either of them to be guided through life by the unnamed narrator. But I would want them to read this novel, because it is designed to stimulate better feelings than are demonstrated by any of its personages, including the narrator.

These better behaviors center around the specific value of sympathy, which is a prominent although unstated theme in the novel. By identifying such a value, I am taking a different line on the general question of ethical response than that set out by J. Hillis Miller and pursued by Myler Wilkinson in treating the “ethical moment” in James’s work. Miller concentrates on “the ethics of reading,” an ethics which depends on reading beyond or outside of the text: “genuine reading is a kind of misreading” (118). Glossing Miller, Wilkinson writes that “something in the very nature of language itself, as a human construction, originates an ethical category” (154). After giving a fascinating reading of the ambiguities in The Turn of the Screw and the ethics of reading embodied in The Ambassadors, he concludes that “The final ethical law may just be to reach toward more meaning, however ungrounded our knowledge of more or less might be.” This “imperative . . . awaits an arrival that is always delayed” (172). The hypothesis—and it is at best a hypothesis—that language “originates” the category “ethical” is fascinating, especially as it may lead to an “ultimate” or “final” ethical law.

I prefer to step back from that ultimate position and remain with Kant’s “universal prescription,” as summarized by Miller (and earlier by William Gass): “always...

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pp. 162-181
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