Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Washington Square

*Washington Square. Fashionable neighborhood at the southern end of New York City’s Manhattan borough that sits near the transition between the narrow, helter-skelter streets with quaint names of the original colonial settlement and the carefully planned grid of streets and avenues with numbers for names above the island’s Fourth Street. Henry James himself was born near Washington Square.

Catherine’s father, Dr. Austin Sloper, first lived near city hall in the older part of Manhattan, which by the time in which the novel is set was becoming commercialized and unfashionable. Dr. Sloper’s late wife came from a neighborhood even farther south—the Battery. After her death, Dr. Sloper moves with his sister, Mrs. Penniman, and Catherine, to Washington Square itself. The novel provides a vivid picture of the Slopers’ house: its front and back parlors; the doctor’s study or library; Catherine’s bedroom at the back, on the third floor; and Mrs. Penniman’s bedroom on the same floor at the front of the house.

In the novel, the contrast between Washington Square and the city around it helps James to communicate the contrast between his central character, Catherine, and the world around her. Even though Dr. Sloper owns the house, readers are likely to see it as attuned to Catherine. She is a large, sensitive, intelligent, shy, guileless woman; her calm and steady character is at the heart of the novel. Moreover, she leaves Washington Square by herself only once, when she makes a desperate walk to Duane Street. As she is surrounded by her father, her aunt, and her would-be lover, Morris Townsend, so Washington Square itself is portrayed as an oasis of “established repose” in the midst of a...

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Washington Square Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Hall, Donald. “Afterword.” In Washington Square, by Henry James. New York: New American Library, 1980. Stresses the moral dilemma represented by Dr. Sloper’s role as both protector and antagonist of his daughter.

Hoffman, Charles G. The Short Novels of Henry James. New York: Bookman Associates, 1957. Discusses the dramatic structure of the book, which was influenced by its serial publication in Cornhill Magazine and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.

Hutchinson, Stuart. Henry James: An American as Modernist. London: Vision Press, 1983. Treats the book as James’s attempt to discover a historical tradition for American literature, which he thought did not share the European sense of belonging to a civilized order.

Samuels, Charles Thomas. The Ambiguity of Henry James. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971. An analysis of James’s use of irony to illustrate Catherine Sloper’s integrity. Compares Dr. Sloper’s fascination with observing innocence to that of the governess in James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898).

Willen, Gerald, ed. Washington Square: The Crowell Critical Library. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1970. A casebook with fourteen critical entries, including excerpts from books on James by Joseph Warren Beach, Edwin T. Bowden, Richard Poirier, Leon Edell, and Maxwell Geismar. Also includes four new essays, the most enlightening being Leo Gurko’s analysis of the distortion of personality by a dominant trait.