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Eros, Art, and Ideology in The Bostonians by Andrew J. Scheiber, University of St. Thomas "Taste and art were good when they enlarged the mind, not when they narrowed it."— The Bostonians Millicent Bell has observed that The Bostonians is ' 'certainly one of those works that seems to change shape as the times change" (109). Indeed, our contemporary understanding of the varieties of human sexual expression allows us to see clearly what perhaps has been obscured by past prejudices: namely, that the struggle between Olive Chancellor and Basil Ransom over the fate of Verena Tarrant inscribes the age-old paradigm of the "love triangle, the oldest of plots, in which a man and a woman instead of two men contend for one girl" (Bell 1 ΙΟ- Ι 1). But in The Bostonians this triangle represents more than the simple question of a young woman's affectional inclinations. As critics as diverse as Leon Edel and Judith Fryer have observed, it is also a matrix of possession in which sexual love is but one component. ' And, by extension, The Bostonians is a war of signification in which Verena is treated as a blank page on which Ransom and Olive attempt to inscribe their competing desires. Still, whether the choice presented by James is between suitors, enslavers, or varieties of textual pleasure, it is a choice nevertheless, and not an easy or a simple one, either for Verena or for James's readership. The contemporary reader, sensitized by feminist interrogations of culturebased gender roles, is likely to react with horror to Basil Ransom's phallocentric world-view, and to see Verena's surrender to him as an unfortunate, if understandable , failure of strength and nerve. Nina Auerbach, for example, reads Ransom as a demonic figure wrapped in "serpentine imagery" appropriate to one who is the father of lies, and sees Olive as the representative of a female community aligned with "a 'truth' that is public and transcendent" (197-98); Wendy Martin argues that the crisis of the novel, in which Ransom wrenches Verena away from Olive and from her career as a feminist advocate, is nothing less than an "abduction" that forces her to "sacrifice an important part of herself... in order to play a supporting role in Ransom's domestic drama" (336, 337). The Henry James Review 13 (1992): 235-52 © 1992 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 236 The Henry James Review Others, trying to read James in the Victorian context of his times, see the author's sympathy as aligned in varying degrees with Ransom. Irving Howe, in his seminal introduction to the novel, argues that James, despite his misgivings about heterosexual relations, nevertheless "implies that they at least make possible sustained and regular communication between human beings, thereby becoming one of the tacit means by which society is knit together" (BO xxiii); for Howe, Ransom's and Olive's ideologies "are not equally in opposition to the natural and the human" (BO xxvii-viii). Bell appears to agree that there is a "natural" basis to Ransom's ideology; in fact, she labels him "the heroic champion of naturalness ' '(HO) and, insisting on James's belief that ' 'men and women are incomplete without each other," asserts that "Olive's radical feminism . . . will never work for most women" (119). Finally, Janet Gabler goes to the extent of arguing that James's sympathies are covertly with Ransom all along and that Ransom's Southern deference in the face of anticipated opposition merely mimics James's own technique in presenting what he himself believed to be an argument that would be ill-received by "modern-thinking" (i.e., feminized) readers (282). So as readers we are, not unlike Verena herself, asked to choose between two interpretive frameworks, neither of which (in true Jamesian fashion) has unambiguous appeal. But it is important to realize that the politics of interpretation in the case of The Bostonians is not primarily a matter of choosing among competing sexual lifestyles; for despite Howe's and others' suggestions to the contrary, it must be said that Olive's lesbianism is no more an index of social dysfunction than is Ransom's own raging heterosexual will to power. The choice faced...


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pp. 235-252
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