"The Bostonians" is a bittersweet tragicomedy centered on an odd triangle of characters: Basil Ransom, a political conservative from Mississippi; Olive Chancellor, Ransom's cousin and a Boston feminist; and Verena Tarrant, a pretty, young protégée of Olive's in the feminist movement. The storyline concerns the struggle between Ransom and Olive for Verena's allegiance and affection, though the novel also includes a wide panorama of political activists, newspaper people, and quirky eccentrics.
"The Bostonians" deals with explicitly political themes: feminism and the general role of women in society. Another theme in the book is Olive's possible lesbian attraction to Verena.
The three central characters are surrounded by a vivid supporting cast of would-be reformers, cynical journalists, and sometimes sinister hangers-on.