Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Bostonians

So, I read Henry James' The Bostonians. As I said before, I am a literary masochist.

The Bostonians, circa 1886, is about Olive, a feminist who hates men "as a class, anyway", and her cousin Basil, who thinks women are subordinate to men. They battle it out for the affections of Verena, an agreeable young woman with a gift for public speaking. During the course of the book, Olive and Verena move in together. Yes, the Boston marriage, one of my favorite relationship structures, gets its name from this book. It's unclear weather Olive and Verena had a sexual relationship or not. While they kiss and hold each other, that's nothing many asexuals wouldn't do. While Olive is obviously wedded to the suffrage cause, she tries to get Verena to promise that she'll never marry a man. Although Olive loves Verena, she also knows that she can use Verena's gift of speaking for her own purposes. Olive's true motives are ambiguous, which makes The Bostonians one of those books that become more interesting upon further thought. What's clear, though, is that their relationship is heavily strained by Basil's advances. While I don't think it's much of a leap to label Olive as a lesbian or as homoromantic, I'm not sure if I could call her asexual. The social mores of the time probably kept her from being sexual with women, and whether or not she had the desire to do so is a mystery. (Spoilers ahead!) Verena is probably heterosexual, as she eventually succumbs to her sexual attraction to Basil. Olive and Verena's relationship doesn't end well, and it speaks to some benefits of our modern awareness of sexual orientation.

This might be the first book I've written about that I'm not sure if I'd recommend. While James has a way with (some) words, he doesn't seem to understand phenomena like paragraph separation and dialogue. The book is billed as a comedy, but I think I was laughing out of exhausted delirium.

What this book really got me thinking about was peoples' opinions vs. their characters. Verena hates Basil's opinions, but she likes his character (or maybe she just thinks he's hot). Olive's sister likes Basil's opinions and hates his character. The fact that people, at least in a Jamesian world, can be separated from their opinions comforts me when it comes to the infamous "Ignorant Masses" problem. Although, I find it hard to understand how Verena, an outspoken suffragist, could fall in love with a man who would force her to abandon her beliefs. Who could possibly be that attractive? If this happens in real life, I don't get it. Perhaps Verena's beliefs weren't all that strong to begin with-- another ambiguity of the story. She seems to love and hate Basil, whose main draw seems to be his infinite persistence. This brings me to another thing I don't understand, but is seen often in books and films: Infinite male persistence.

There's always a woman who isn't interested in a guy, but he chases her over months and even years until she finally gives in and falls in love with him. Does this actually happen? Wouldn't most people just give up? And isn't it a little strange not to, when you receive no encouragement whatsoever? Isn't this kind of persistence, which contains a large element of not caring what the other person thinks, a total turn-off? Ah yes, Mr. James, I have many questions...


Gemma said...

Ugh I hate that male entitlement thing! My friend and I were discussing it a while ago in relation to the tv show 'Heroes'. It seems that they are sending out the message that if you keep trying and wear down the woman enough she'll eventually give in and fall in love with you. Nevermind that this sort of behaviour could be seen as annoying/harrasment/stalking.
They seem to portray most women as playing 'hard to get' and being a tease. Whatever happened to 'no means no'?

I also find it hard to believe that many men would have the persistence and bad manners to pursue a woman as far as is portrayed in fiction. But I still hate that this sort of behaviour is portrayed as normal and acceptable in the media.

Superquail said...

It's so funny that you mentioned the concept of "infinite male persistence" in your post, since I was just having a conversation about that very thing in regard to "Pride and Prejudice."

So often it seems like the main story in "girl movies" is that a girl falls in love with a boy, and even though he can be a total asshole, in the end he learns to love and appreciate her. But since he's been a total asshole, he has to chase her around a bit before seh can consent to marry him. Dull!

P&P is totally different. The man is an asshole, but he has really compelling reasons behind all of his seemingly obnoxious actions and once he saw the damage he did, he did what he could to make things right. The woman doesn't love the man at first, and it isn't any long romantic chase scene or dramatic apology that changes her mind, it's the gradual understanding she develops after watching him in his "natural habitat" and learning more about who he is.

Modern love stories have no room for these kinds of complexities. Alas.

Ily said...

'Pride and Prejudice' is some way it's more realistic than many stories, but I still don't understand the whole "I don't want to love you, but I do" phenomenon that Mr. Darcy experiences for Elizabeth. The same thing happens to Verena in 'the Bostonians'. (But at least Elizabeth is somewhat insulted by that fact, whereas Verena's love interest is pleased with it.) I can understand feeling emotions that you don't want to feel, but falling in love with someone who's insufferable to you? I can't imagine a circumstance under which that would ever happen to me. Characters are constantly falling in love with each other at first sight with no information about the other person, and it's amazing how intense and long-lasting their love is.

I just read 'A Room of One's Own', and Virginia Woolf praises 'Pride and Prejudice' to the high heavens. I wouldn't go that far (it looses a lot without Colin Firth's involvement), but I do think it's better than 'The Bostonians' as far as stories about human relationships go.

Superquail said...

Ah, the thing with Mr. Darcy's "I don't want to love you but I do" has to do with Elizabeth's family. He thinks she is totally awesome, but he thinks her family really sucks. Back at that time, to marry someone was to unite your two families together, and he didn't want his "superior" family to be tainted by connection to this truly inferior group of people.

Ily said...

I just heard a Morrissey song that made me think of this post: "The more you ignore me, the closer I get". Creepy!

Superquail said...

My sister has this theory about relationships that I've always found somewhat disturbing but still interesting. She thinks all relationships area zero-sum game. The more you pour into it, the more the other person will pull away, the more you pull away, the more the other person will chase you. I think that's a bit cynical, but there are definitely times when it seems to be the case.