Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Bostonians by Henry James

From my "Book Lover's Journal," January 2002

Most excellent. Surprised the feminist movement survived it. However, if it was a "failure" when it first came out, I can see why: it all hinges on the character of Olive Chancellor, and there is no reason for her to be as she is, at least no explanation -- though perhaps that is James' point. She is like Iago, totally rational and totally malicious -- but why?

I suppose the theme of the novel is that people are going to do what they like, and always have, and that the purpose of life is to be true to oneself (like Miss Birdseye, who is a radical), and not to give oneself over to a cause, even a cause for freedom. Subjection to a cause always leads to obedience: the Boston audience howling for Verena at the end. As for oppression, not a single woman in the book is beholden to anyone, except perhaps Olive herself, who at the end has a male agent, Mr. Filer. Obedience being the price of belonging, James would not be at all surprised to find today that the feminist movement's demand now is that all women work, and wish to work. As for Basil Ransom, he, like Miss Birdseye, is one of the few characters true to himself -- and true to the absolute truth, love -- but even with him, James has "not cheated." He really does want women to stay home and make men happy. Or so he protests. He also "sits on fences" for them.

A curious note: I think James cannot describe the American landscape. He has no feel for it -- he describes it as if from a map, with no real smells, sounds, details, love.

As for Verena: a pure and lovely creature, yet, as such, her subjection to the horror of Olive also makes little sense. I feel James knew none of these people, except Ransom and Birdseye; the rest are types, set to lay a scene.

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