- 'The Reader Who Likes a Complete Image' vs. 'The Arbiter of Destinies':Henry James's The Bostonians, William Dean Howells, and Realism
The Bostonians relates the contest between a stern New England feminist and a self-confident sexist Southerner over a beautiful, submissive girl who speaks out for women's rights; it notoriously ends with the virile male protagonist getting the girl. As this summary intimates, reading it is likely to be painful enough in itself. The trial seems innocuous enough, however, when compared to the often distressing experience of going through the bulk of criticism written about this novel. Wolfgang Iser has reminded us that readers' judgement will 'reveal their own norms',1 yet The Bostonians is a narrative that has triggered particularly intense reactions, luring readers into displaying their own ideology, urging them to take sides either with the caring feminist (Olive) and against the brutal woman-hater (Basil), or with the no-nonsense hero-in-love (Basil again) and against the ruthless, perverting man-hater (Olive). Let me quote a few words about the latter, the Bostonian reformer who is trying to create a 'Boston marriage' with Verena or, in James's careful words, 'one of those friendships between women which are so common in New England'.2 In the less careful words of Pearce, Olive is presented as 'deficient as a human being' partly 'because of her aberrant sexuality',3 meaning her 'lesbianism' which the same critic describes as 'a psychological condition of which she seems to remain unaware'.4 Elsewhere we are told that although Basil is 'by no means free of faults or full of virtues'
his virtues are quite sufficiently sane – particularly as antidote to the noxious nonsense to which they are opposed in the novel – to provoke reasonably full sympathy in the intelligent and impartial reader.5
If, as another critic wrote, 'the novel wants us, in spite of everything, to like this man',6 then it might seem as if many critics either had not read [End Page 87] the same novel or were definitely not 'intelligent and impartial readers'. Indeed, on the other end of the ideological and interpretive spectrum, one learns that there is a 'revolutionary message latent' in the novel, based on 'the recognition that lesbianism is a key issue in feminism'7 – a statement which applies to what has been called 'James's most reactionary book'.8 Although it must be acknowledged that such outspoken readings of the novel have somehow rarefied or at least become more politically correct, it still seems that criticism has taken little heed of John Carlos Rowe's 1985 warning that the central issue for feminist studies of Henry James is not a matter of 'deciding whether the Henry James who wrote The Bostonians favours Basil Ransom or Olive Chancellor'.9 More recently, another pro-Olive critic wrote, for instance, that 'James suggests active participation by women in the political arena for those capable of undertaking such responsibility'.10 The Bostonians thus appears as the Jamesian novel which has been received in the most radically opposed ways, from the interpretation of which of its conveniently polarized characters is most domineering, to which is the book's hero or heroine, up to the ending. We know that the novel concludes on the newly-formed couple fleeing from the Music Hall, with Verena in tears. Here are the very last words of the narrative: 'it is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which she was about to enter, these [tears] were not the last she was destined to shed'.11 In the light of the few critical extracts just quoted, it seems hardly surprising that those tears should have been considered by some as 'a small price to pay for achieving a normal relationship in a society so sick'.12 Yet it is slightly more disconcerting to learn that a prominent critic once wrote about the 'optimistic ending' featuring Basil's and Verena's 'triumphant union'.13 Interestingly enough, the same critic ends his chapter with the following sentence: '[t]he truth is that all the natural impulse of the novel is directed...