Literary Analysis Essay on Women's Rights in the Bostonians by Henry James

Published: 2021-07-19
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Henry James was a 19th -century author. He was born in America but later moved to England where he acquired British citizenship. Although he did not come out in the light as a feminist, much of his artistic work revolved around women and portrayed much about his view on feminism. His writing also came at a period in the nineteenth-century when the feminist movement was at its height, especially in the United States. The Bostonians, one his books was first published as a serial in a magazine in 1885-1886, and later as a book in 1886. In this book, James expresses his view on feminism and shows his support for the freedom that these women were searching. This paper will explore feminism and womens rights as portrayed in The Bostonians, exploring how James brought out this issue through the women characters in this book.

Henry James expresses his thoughts through three main characters in his book; two ladies and a gentleman. His focus, however, is on the two women and the role of relationships in bringing about personal freedom that was so much sought after by the women of this time. Around the time before the writing of this book, the feminist movement had begun to pick off politically, with large scale protests becoming more frequent in the United States. The American Women Suffrage Association was formed towards the end of 1869. These movements became increasingly large and impactful such that several years after The Bostonians was published, the first state in America gave its women the right to vote. Although The Bostonians is considered a feminist piece of art, many female activists dismissed the novel entirely since it was seen as condemning the political path the feminist movements had taken. However, according to Leslie Petty, James supported the movement with a focus on personal freedom and intimate relationships, rather than the rigid political movements.

The novel focuses on the characters of two women, Verena Tarrant and Olive Chancellor. Olive is a reformist who develops an interest in Verena upon hearing her deliver a feminist speech. Both women are true supporters of the feminist movement that was sweeping across countries both in America and England. Olive persuades Verena to leave her parents house and come live with her as she pursues her career. The two women develop a liking for one another eventually leading to what James calls a Boston Marriage, which is a long-term relationship between two unmarried women who are very close to each other. These two women were independent on anyone else but relied on each other for mutual love and support. James uses this relationship to show the role relationships play in bringing forth true liberty. Love and support are essential ingredients to true freedom. While in this relationship, the women pursue their passion for the movement relentlessly. This according to the plot, is found in a marriage relationship.

James also brings out the idea of mentorship as a tool in the achievement of womens rights. Mentorship is portrayed through the character of Mrs. Birdseye, who can be considered as an outside mentor for the women. Although her old age seems to get in her way of giving good advice, she is a passionate supporter of the movement and Olive considers her with high regard, claiming that Mrs. Birdseye is one who has labored the most for every wise reform, being one of the earliest, most passionate old Abolitionists, (James, p. 19). However, the idea of mentorship as portrayed by Mrs. Birdseye conflict with that which James approves. In James view, individual differences are important and should be respected since feminism is about propelling women forward through their ideas of fulfillment, rather than holding them to a generalized set of standards. Mrs. Birdseye, however, does not give room for other womens views but believes that her opinions are correct. She believed that she could convert men into feminism and she tries to instill this in Olive and the other young women of the movement. The view that Mrs. Birdseye has concerning the movement, and the way she sees the other women she is mentoring as beneficial rather than individuals she could improve to make their life happier, is criticized by James as he sees it as political. James brings her out as having a jaded belief towards the movement, thus not a very effective mentor for Olive and Verena in their quest for equal rights for women. However, mentorship from the older to the younger is seen as a component of the feminist movement.

The Bostonian also brings out the issue of equal rights in the marriage relationship. James uses different characters who have different views on the form of marriage and how it should be run. For instance, Olive is against conventional marriage, and more so to a man and believes that women are superior to men (James, p. 34). She is not engaged in any conventional marriage throughout the novel, only being in a Boston marriage with Verena. Verena is not opposed to marriage but believes in equal rights for both parties in the relationship. She loves the idea of independence. She is at first involved in a Boston marriage with Olive before marrying Basil towards the end of the novel. On the other hand, Adeline, Olives sister believes in the standards of a conventional marriage. James depicts her as the typical woman of the nineteenth century with the beliefs of a man as the head and the woman as the submissive party. These beliefs make her pursue Basil as she seeks to find a new husband to remarry her since she is a widow. The contradicting views on marriage between these two sisters make them to be at loggerheads many times. Although Basil is opposed to the feminist movements, he relentlessly pursues Verena, who is a staunch member of the movement until at the end he manages to marry her. This marriage shows that men had finally started to embrace the new standards that came with the feminist movements.

James also portrays mens eventual support for feminism and womens rights in the character of Basil, Olives cousin. Although he did not support the feminist movement out rightly, his actions showed that he was slowly embracing the ideologies and did not mind being involved in some of the members activities. His pursuit and marriage to Verena are in support of this. Verena is a passionate member of the movement who makes speeches concerning on the movements agendas. Basil first encounters Verena when she gave a speech and develops an interest in her. Verena believes in equal rights in marriage at a period when men were considered as superior to women. Her view, however, does not deter Basil from his goal of marrying her. Basil also engages in talks about the movement with Mrs. Birdseye, who tries to talk him into joining the movement. Although he hasnt joined at the end of the novel, it is evident that he is not as strongly opposed to the movement as he was in the beginning. With Verena as the wife, he will be forced to embrace some of the standards for the marriage to work. Basil represents some men of the nineteenth-century who slowly embraced the ideas of the feminist movement as time went by.

In summary, The Bostonians portrays feminist independence in the context of marriage and relationships in the nineteenth-century. Two marriages are depicted; the Bostonian marriage between Olive and Verena, and the marriage between Basil and Verena. Through the Boston marriage, these two women are able to explore their inner strengths as they complement one another and are actively involved in the feminist movement. They offer each other mutual love and support as they pursue to achieve the movements agenda. The other marriage between Basil and Verena brings out a fulfillment as both are attracted to each other. Through this, James shows his support for women, not in a political view as was with the movements of the day, but in marriages and relationships and how these result in true liberation. His role can be seen as instrumental since it is during this time after the publication of this books that women were given the right to vote.

Works Cited

Boockoff, Emily. "Leading Women: Henry James and Feminism in The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians and The Golden Bowl." (2015).

Evans, Richard J. The feminists: women's emancipation movements in Europe, America and Australasia 1840-1920. Routledge, 2012.

Gard, Roger, ed. Henry James. Routledge, 2013.

Miller, Grant. "Women's suffrage, political responsiveness, and child survival in American history." The Quarterly Journal of Economics 123.3 (2008): 1287-1327.

Rowe, John Carlos. The theoretical dimensions of Henry James. Univ of Wisconsin Press, 2009.

Stevens, Hugh. Henry James and sexuality. Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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