Female mentor relationships in Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady", "The Bostonians", and "The Golden Bowl"

Deborah L. A Reitz, Marquette University


Henry James is credited with being the first American writer to portray women realistically. Many of his heroines confront and defy the social expectation that they marry. Implicit in this expectation are traditional gender assumptions about the role of women in society. Structurally, the drama of the heroine's break from these conservative expectations is performed within a female mentor relationship. The heroine turns to an older woman as an exemplar and models her behavior accordingly. This type of mentoring network is consistent with the historical studies of Carrol Smith-Rosenberg's "The Female World of Love and Ritual," which asserts that women learned feminine behavior and gender expectations from other women. James's representation of this female world differs from Smith-Rosenberg's because his network is ultimately founded upon betrayal: In order to perpetuate the ideology of the separate spheres, the mentor, whose independent behavior had attracted the protegee in the first place, reinforces the conservative assumptions about gender roles that she herself has defies. Chapter One provides a social and cultural narrative of women in the nineteenth-century in order to provide a context for the discussion of the three novels. Chapter Two examines the plethora of feminine images available to women through the mentor relationship in The Portrait of a Lady. Ultimately, the conflict between the Ideals of True and Real Womanhoods presents the conundrum women face as they confront the expectation that they marry. Chapter Three examines the political ramifications of this social expectation through The Bostonians, a novel which uses the Woman's rights Movement as its subject. Chapter Four explores the sexual implications of female independence through the adultery which forms the plot of The Golden Bowl. Finally, Chapter Five offers the conclusion that despite James's subject matter, the independent American girl, his impulse is conservative. This is historically consistent because despite the fact that women gained ground throughout the nineteenth century, conservative assumptions about the role of women in society persisted. James's novels, then, provide a training manual in conservative ideology.

Recommended Citation

Reitz, Deborah L. A, "Female mentor relationships in Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady", "The Bostonians", and "The Golden Bowl"" (1992). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9227136.