The Bostonians by Henry James

February 8, 2011

Plot summary (with spoilers): While visiting his cousin Olive Chancellor in Boston, Basil Ransom accompanies her to a political rally where a young woman named Verena Tarrant steals the show with an impassioned speech about women’s rights. Both Basil and Olive are immediately taken with the pretty Verena: Basil, because of the woman’s looks; and Olive, ostensibly, because Verena’s politics align so closely with her own.

Olive calls on Verena the next day, and after a while the two become friends. Indeed, Olive persuades Verena to move in with her — all in the name of the feminist cause. Modern readers, no doubt, will get the impression that there’s a sexual undertone to Olive and Verena’s relationship, a point that is much debated among literary critics, teachers, and students.

The story plays out as more or less a love triangle between Olive, Verena, and Basil. Though Olive never admits that she loves Verena in a romantic sense, she does take the girl off to Europe when she senses Basil gaining the upper hand in Verena’s affections, and she reacts very jealously to everything that Basil does in regard to Verena.

Verena, meanwhile, seems to be little more than a passive pawn in this struggle between the cousins. She likes both of them (though she too gives no indication that there’s any romance with Olive) and frequently vacillates between the two choices. In the end, Basil practically forces Verena to elope with him, physically removing her from an auditorium where she was slated to give another speech. Verena leaves the lecture hall in tears, which, James tells us, will not be the last in her tumultuous relationship with Basil.


  • Well, the potential lesbian relationship was interesting! Too bad this was published in 1886 when such topics couldn’t be addressed openly (pun intended).


  • As short as The Bostonians was, I simply couldn’t get into it. I’m not sure why. I think the characters were fleshed out reasonably well for a book of this length, and their motivations were understandable. I just didn’t care for any of them or their fates. I guess this is bound to happen sometimes.


I’ve liked a number of Henry James’s other books, but The Bostonians did absolutely nothing for me. I didn’t find the characters or their situations compelling, and therefore wasn’t interested in anything on these pages. I give the book 2 stars out of 5.

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