Washington Square, published in 1881, is an unusual novel for Henry James in that he located its setting in the United States. By that time, James rarely made trips back to the land of his birth, but he had yet to forsake it completely, as he did prior to his death by becoming a British subject. The novel's main theme, however, is a familiar one: the tale of a life unlived. Catherine Sloper is cursed with what was often fatal in New York society of the time: she had plain looks and little personality to compensate. Yet she did have considerable wealth, or at least the prospects of it after the death of her father. For this reason Morris Townsend, a man of shadowy background, finds her an easy target for gold digging. He begins a courtship that he believes will go smoothly because it is unlikely that he has any present or future competition. He also has an annoying ally in the person of Mrs. Penniman, Catherine’s aunt. Mrs. Penniman rejoices in the chance to play matchmaker, living out her own romantic fantasies through the lives of Morris and her niece. Catherine quickly falls for the attractive and attentive Morris Townsend, but meets with opposition from her father, the distinguished physician Dr. Austin Sloper. Dr. Sloper controls his home like a kingdom centered on the fashionable Washington Square district of New York City, and he sees Morris as an evil interloper intent on using Catherine to gain access to a better lifestyle. The machinations of Morris, Mrs. Penniman, and Dr. Sloper form the vehicle by which the character of the weak yet surprisingly independent Catherine is developed. In the end, as Dr. Sloper’s fears prove justified, Catherine emerges even stronger than before, frustrating the plans of her father, her aunt, and even her fiancé.
Washington Square Summary
Peace, especially of the domestic variety, becomes increasingly important to Dr. Sloper when he enters his fifties. Intelligent, poised, and distinguished in his profession, he is accustomed to meeting life on his terms. He suffers the loss of his wife and a young son many years before, but the passage of time softens this blow. Now he dwells quietly and comfortably in his mansion on Washington Square with his only remaining child, Catherine, and his widowed sister, Mrs. Penniman.
Neither of his companions inspires the doctor with great fondness. His sister has just the sort of nature, incurably romantic, devious, and feminine, to set his teeth on edge; he sees her presence in his establishment as merely a necessary inconvenience to provide female supervision for his growing daughter. As to his daughter, Dr. Sloper thinks Catherine is a good girl but incurably dull. By her twenties, she never has a romantic interest or even the prospect of such. She is shyly fond of her father and very much afraid of him, especially when an ironical tone creeps into his voice. He is, however, generally kind and courteous to her, though more self-contained than an adoring daughter might wish.
Catherine’s taste for ornate dress is one of the characteristics that her father finds especially trying. She long cherishes this taste without venturing to express it, but when she reaches the age of twenty, she buys herself a red satin gown trimmed with gold fringe. Her father inwardly grimaces at the thought that a child of his should be both ugly and overdressed.
Catherine wears her red gown on the evening when she first meets Morris Townsend. The occasion is a party, given by her aunt, Mrs. Almond. Catherine quickly becomes convinced that she never met a young man so handsome, clever, and attentive. When his absorption with Catherine attracts notice, Townsend shifts his attentions to Mrs. Penniman, whose romantic sensibilities are soon aflutter with delight and anticipation. Before the evening ends, she manages to intimate to this agreeable young man that he is welcome to...
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In New York City during the 1840s and 1850s, Dr. Austin Sloper is the epitome of the scientific man that was becoming the hallmark of the nineteenth-century world. He has an impeachable reputation, both in his medical practice and in his social life. He is the type of doctor who is considered clever, well-educated, and scholarly. In his private life, he marries a woman from a wealthy family, whose beauty and charm help him to navigate in the higher social circles of New York society. He is delighted at the birth of his firstborn, a son to carry on the Sloper name. However, at the age of three the boy dies. The birth of the second Sloper child—a girl named Catherine, after her mother—is an added disappointment. Moreover, one week after the birth of the child, Mrs. Sloper dies. Thus passes the only female for whom Dr. Sloper has any true love. Neither Catherine nor his sister Mrs. Lavinia Penniman stands high in his regard. His other sister, Mrs. Almond, stands higher, simply because she is a female version of himself, especially with her negative outlook for Catherine’s future as a lady in New York society.
Dr. Sloper’s first sister, Mrs. Lavinia Penniman, was left alone and childless when her clergyman husband died. Mrs. Penniman comes to New York, intending to stay with her brother until she finds suitable lodgings. The lodgings are never found, and Mrs. Penniman becomes a fixture in the Sloper household, ostensibly to help in the rearing of her niece, Catherine.
Dr. Sloper’s main request of Mrs. Penniman is that she ensure that Catherine grows up to be a “clever” woman. He has great fears of having a fool in the family, and he counts on Mrs. Penniman to prevent this from happening. However, it is not to be. Catherine is not a fool, but she does not become “clever.” She is not beautiful, like her mother, but neither is she ugly: she is simply plain. She continues to be a disappointment to her father, who predicts that no one will ever fall in love with her, though he can imagine that Mrs....
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Catherine grows up to be “healthy” yet plain. She develops an interest in “lively” dress, about which Dr. Sloper has much misgivings. He thinks it is bad enough that she is plain and dull, but now she is also overdressed. Catherine buys a dress that she has long wanted, a red silk gown with gold fringe. Although she is only twenty years old, the dress makes her look a more matronly thirty. It is this dress that she wears to the party given by her aunt, Mrs. Almond, in celebration of her daughter’s engagement to Arthur Townsend.
Dr. Sloper had been living downtown, but with the increase in his income and social level, he moves up to the more fashionable district on Washington Square. Mrs. Almond lives even further up town with her nine children. Catherine grows up extremely close to her cousins, especially the male ones. She enjoys boys’ games, but eventually the boys grow up and move away or go into business. One of her girl cousins is married, and the younger one, Marian, is engaged to a young stockbroker.
At the party, Catherine stands out because of her dress, but she remains on the sidelines. Her cousin Marian brings over Arthur’s cousin, Morris, who has asked to be introduced to her. Catherine is dumbfounded by his attractiveness, and she cannot remember his name, a habit she has when introduced to new people. Morris, however, is more than able to carry the conversation. He admires all aspects of the party and its inhabitants, while Catherine can murmur only short responses. She cannot keep her eyes off him, however. He is tall and slim but also appears to be strong. He has only recently returned to New York after spending several years travelling abroad. He is endeavoring to get back into the society of his birthplace.
Eventually Marian comes to take Morris to be introduced to her mother. Marian then asks Catherine what she thinks of Morris and she replies, “Nothing particular,” which is a deliberate lie. Later Catherine notices Morris talking to her aunt, Mrs. Penniman. The latter seems to be genuinely impressed with the young man, a fact which gratifies Catherine. When Dr. Sloper arrives, he expresses surprise that his daughter appears in the form of “this magnificent person.” He comments, however, that she looks as if she had “eighty thousand a year,” meaning that she appears more wealthy than she actually is. Dr. Sloper asks Catherine if she has enjoyed the party, and she merely replies that she is tired—another lie from someone who is usually honest. Dr. Sloper asks Mrs. Penniman about the young man, and Mrs. Penniman...
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Arthur and Morris Townsend come to visit shortly after the party. Morris sits with Mrs. Penniman, while Catherine has Arthur for a partner, though she would very much like the situations to be reversed. She cannot help noticing how much Mrs. Penniman enjoys Morris’s company. Catherine herself has trouble focusing on Arthur until he begins to give her some information about Morris. His cousin is orphaned, Arthur says, with only a widowed sister for family. He has no business prospects at the moment. Arthur then informs Morris that he and Catherine have been talking about him. Morris says that he and Mrs. Penniman have not been talking about Arthur, but they have indeed been discussing Catherine....
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Dr. Sloper regards with increasing concern the progressing courtship of Morris and Catherine. He is concerned about the appearance of the sudden arrival of a lover where none has darkened the door for that purpose before. Dr. Sloper is not bothered that Morris is poor, but that he is poor through his own weakness of character. When at last Morris comes to visit while Catherine’s father is present, Sloper is impressed with Morris's physical appearance but quite the opposite with his personality. He finds the suitor overconfident without justification.
Morris can readily tell that Sloper does not like him. In a first line of confrontation, he discovers that her father’s approval is...
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At the customary Sunday evening gathering at Mrs. Almond's, Morris arrives and devotes his time to Catherine. Dr. Sloper, seeing the two together, pities his daughter. Although she knows her father's disapproval of the courtship, she still insists on seeing Morris. Yet she cannot be as openly defiant as she might assume to be. She is not an adequate rebel, and it is that which Dr. Sloper pities. Considering how unattractive she herself is, he acknowledges that she must enjoy the attentions of an attractive young man. He also knows that she will defend him against Morris’s objections. He decides to give Morris another chance. The two men discuss Morris’s employment prospects, yet the subtext is the...
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Catherine fearfully goes to her father to break the news concerning her engagement to Morris Townsend. Dr. Sloper calmly allows Catherine to speak, having a good idea of the subject of her announcement. She tells him that she is engaged. Her father is startled, not expecting this to happen so soon, but he keeps a straight face and calmly asks who the lucky man is (as if he did not know that there is only one possibility). When Catherine tells him that she is engaged to Morris, he asks when this engagement took place. When he discovers that it was just two hours previously, he knows that contrary to his own request and Morris’s own vow, Morris has come to the house again.
Knowing how much he...
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Dr. Sloper reports his conversations with Morris and Catherine to his sister, Mrs. Almond. He believes that he is adept enough at estimating people that he is positive Catherine will give up Morris. Mrs. Almond says that Morris may be the one case in which Dr. Sloper fails. Dr. Sloper does not think so, but he will give the young man the benefit of the doubt. He will go to talk to Morris’s sister, Mrs. Montgomery, to get another opinion of his character. Mrs. Almond believes that Mrs. Montgomery will stand up for her brother, especially in light of such a financially lucrative marriage. Dr. Sloper insists that if she stands up for him because of the money, then she would be a deceptive person and...
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Dr. Sloper is nonplussed at Catherine’s reaction to his announcement that he does not approve of her engagement: she has no reaction. He cannot decide if she if giving him a silent reprimand or merely being an obedient daughter.
Catherine, in the meantime, is enjoying the feeling of being an obedient daughter. She writes a letter to Morris, telling him that they should not meet until she has made up her mind. Morris, irate, writes back saying he thought she had already made up her mind. He informs her that her father had been very violent in the conversation he had with Morris, while Morris himself was the picture of self-control. In fact, it had been the exact opposite. Yet Catherine is...
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Mrs. Penniman tells Catherine about her visit with Morris Townsend. Catherine is less than pleased; in fact, she feels genuinely angry, something that she has never felt before. She fears that her aunt is meddling to the point that, somehow, her aunt will “spoil” the relationship. Mrs. Penniman, on her part, is contemptuous of her niece’s loyalty to her father by refusing to see Morris. She makes Catherine drag information out of her concerning the visit, telling her that Morris has stated that he would marry Catherine any day. She also lies about where the two met. Catherine resents her aunt’s pushiness, and Mrs. Penniman resents Catherine’s lack of trust and unwillingness to let Mrs. Penniman...
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Dr. Sloper confronts Mrs. Penniman concerning her interference. He warns her to stay out of the relationship and especially not to encourage Catherine’s open defiance, telling Mrs. Penniman that continued attentions to Morris on her part would be “treasonous,” which (as he states) is a “capital offense.” Mrs. Penniman replies by calling him an “autocrat” (dictator), but he insists that he is simply his daughter’s father. Mrs. Penniman points out that Catherine has just had a “dreadful night,” but he says that she will not die of one dreadful night, nor even a dozen. He emphasizes that he knows this because he is a “distinguished physician.” Mrs. Penniman then takes a big risk...
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Dr. Sloper visits Mrs. Almond, the sister who is most in sympathy with his personality and worldview. He remarks again that he thinks that Catherine will indeed “stick.” Yet in this case he means that she is going to wait. He is not sure if, in the end, she will decide to marry Morris Townsend, but at the moment she is fulfilling his expectations of waiting. Mrs. Almond is bothered by his seeming disinterestedness in the happiness of his own daughter. The siblings discuss whether the word cling is a better term than stick concerning Catherine’s current behavior. Dr. Sloper discusses the possibility of taking Catherine to Europe, ostensibly to “polish her up.” Mrs. Almond...
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Mrs. Penniman learns that she is not to be included in the European trip. She is philosophic about it, although she admits she would have loved to see the art and the ancient ruins of Rome. She tells Catherine of her father’s real reason for the trip—taking Catherine away from Morris Townsend so that she might forget him. Catherine declares that this is of course not possible, so she contemplates telling her father so that he will not pay for a trip whose purpose is to no avail. Mrs. Penniman, however, suggests that she wait until afterward for the purpose of causing her father the expense. This, to Mrs. Penniman, is just revenge.
Catherine writes to Morris, asking him to meet her one...
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The first person that Catherine meets on her return to New York is her aunt, Mrs. Penniman. Catherine is left feeling uncomfortable on learning that her aunt has spent so much time with Morris Townsend, much more than she herself has been with him since the two met. She does not feel jealous, but she is more aware than ever of her aunt’s fantasy of being a romantic savior. Morris has promised that he will not betray Mrs. Penniman to Dr. Sloper. Catherine learns that Morris has made himself at home in her father’s study, a situation with which she does not feel at all comfortable. But she is overjoyed to hear that her fiancé has found a position as a commission-merchant.
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On his return to New York, Dr. Sloper confronts Mrs. Penniman with what he assumes she has been doing in his absence. He knows that she has continued her relationship with Morris Townsend and that most likely Morris has f requented his home in his absence, which Dr. Sloper finds in deplorable taste. Mrs. Penniman, on her part, is equally sarcastic, but Dr. Sloper is unimpressed. She, however, is frightened. Dr. Sloper consults his other sister, Mrs. Almond, who is more sympathetic but is still unconvinced of the effectiveness of her brother’s actions. She points out that Mrs. Penniman has championed Morris for a year, so Morris sees Catherine’s absence as so much gained. She also informs Dr. Sloper...
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Morris Townsend continues to come to visit Catherine, but finds that Mrs. Penniman has not paved the way for him to break off his relationship with Catherine, and he is unable to do so on his own. He becomes increasingly frustrated with Mrs. Penniman’s failure to keep her promise to prepare Catherine, and is noticeably upset when he makes his final visit to Catherine. She asks if he is sick, to which he responds that he is not well. She fears that he is overworking himself. He replies that he must earn a living so that he does not give the appearance of living off of her. He is too proud, he says, but she must take him as he is. She is unconcerned about whether or not he earns sufficient money to...
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Catherine continues to hide her feelings, pretending that nothing has occurred. That Sunday evening, Mrs. Almond discusses the situation with Mrs. Penniman. Mrs. Almond is glad that Catherine is not marrying Morris, but she still thinks he should be horsewhipped. Mrs. Penniman, of course, is shocked at the suggestion. She informs her sister that Morris acted out of his concern that Catherine would be impoverished should they be married. When Mrs. Almond asks what Catherine has said to Mrs. Penniman, the latter states (untruthfully) that she says Mrs. Penniman has a “genius for consolation.”
When Catherine expresses concern that her father might ask her about Morris, her aunt tells her to...
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Dr. Sloper eventually retires from his medical practice. He goes to Europe for two years, taking both Catherine and Mrs. Penniman with him. Mrs. Penniman feels that she is familiar with all of it, so it holds no surprises for her. On their return, Dr. Sloper speaks to Catherine about his death. She rejects the possibility as he is only sixty-eight years old, but he insists. He once again asks for her promise that she will not marry Morris Townsend after his death. Morris has returned to New York and frequents her cousin Marian’s home (Marian’s husband is Morris’s cousin), though this has been kept secret from Catherine. Dr. Sloper states that Morris has grown fat and old, that he has been married...
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Mrs. Penniman does not bring up the subject of Morris Townsend until one evening a week later. When asked if Catherine will be angry if the topic is brought up, Catherine replies that she will not be angry, but she will not like it. Mrs. Penniman has a message that she promised to deliver, and she must keep her promise. Catherine, angry after all, says she does not care what her aunt does with her promise. Mrs. Penniman says that Morris would like to come to visit Catherine so that he can explain his actions. Catherine states that there is no reason for him to come. Mrs. Penniman replies that Morris’s happiness depends on it. Catherine answers that hers, however, does not. Her aunt insists that Morris...
(The entire section is 1017 words.)