Henry James handles the central problem in Washington Square in such a subtle way that it is difficult to pinpoint any obvious statement or sign that Morris is, indeed, solely interested in Catherine's money. We judge him to be a fortune hunter mainly on the passionate attraction he pretends to feel for a girl with hardly anything to offer except her good nature and her potential inheritance. We also judge Morris by Dr. Sloper's assessment of him, which seems precisely accurate, especially coming from a prominent physician who is an expert at analyzing people. Morris probably does not even want to acknowledge to himself that he is a perfect cad. He is well aware that his affair with Catherine Sloper is being watched by everyone in the best New York society.
It is not until Chapter 28 that the subject of money really comes out into the open. This is during his conversations with the romantic busybody Aunt Lavinia Penniman. She is a go-between who is sincerely concerned about Morris's welfare. She is finally forced to acknowledge in this climactic chapter that there is no possibility whatsoever that Dr. Sloper will change his mind now or at any time in the future about disinheriting his daughter if she marries Townsend. He can marry Catherine and get his hands on her $10,000 a year or he can break their engagement; but the $30,000 a year she would have had after her father's death is totally out of his reach.
Morris walked along a moment, and then he repeated harshly, "I must give her up!"
"I think I understand you," said Mrs. Penniman gently.
"I certainly say it distinctly enough--brutally and vulgarly enough."
He was ashamed of himself, and his shame was uncomfortable; and as he was extremely intolerant of discomfort, he felt vicious and cruel. He wanted to abuse somebody, and he began, cautiously--for he was always cautious--with himself.
"Couldn't you take her down a little?" he asked.
"Take her down?"
"Prepare her--try and ease me off."
Mrs. Penniman stopped, looking at him very solemnly.
"My poor Morris, do you know how much she loves you?"
Morris realizes he has been defeated. He knows what it will do to his reputation in New York society when word gets out that he abandoned Catherine solely because of money. He was willing to sell himself for $30,000 a year, but he felt he was worth more than $10,000 a year. Aunt Penniman agrees with him. She feels he should break the engagement and look for a better match elsewhere. But there is the question of how to deal with Catherine. Morris wants to avoid an unpleasant scene. He is a selfish man who enjoys comfort and would like to be spared the inevitable unpleasantness--even though he is the one who brought the whole affair about with his impetuous courting. He wants Lavinia to handle Catherine for him, but she insists that there must be a final meeting between the engaged couple. Otherwise it will not satisfy her romantic conception of what she regards as a tragic love story.
In Chapter 29, Morris does his best to engineer a quarrel and a break-up with the adoring, clinging Catherine. He finds that Mrs. Penniman has not "done much to pave the path of retreat with flowers. It was devilish awkward, as he said, and he felt a lively animosity for Catherine's aunt, who, as he had now quite formed the habit of saying to himself, had dragged him into the mess and was bound in common charity to get him out of it." He tells Catherine a fabricated story about having to go to New Orleans on a business deal and treats her as coldly as he dares to do under the circumstances. Morris manages to get away with a vague promise that he will come back again before he leaves.
"Ah, you won't come back!" she cried, bursting into tears.
"Dear Catherine," he said, "don't believe that I promise you that you shall see me again!" And he managed to get away and to close the door behind him.
Henry James was an extremely subtle writer. It is not until nearly the end of the novel, in chapters 28 and 29, that the true character of Morris Townsend becomes absolutely transparent. He is not a villain. He is a man who desires all the comforts of life without having to work for them. He is an excellent example of a fortune hunter of his time. Whether or not he would have squandered Catherine's capital if she had obtained her father's fortune in addition to her own is a moot question. He might have acted the part of a good husband, escorting his wife to various gatherings and making polite conversation. No doubt he would have fathered several children, and these might have given her the love she never would have received from Morris. But when he comes back to visit her after a number of years, hoping to reignite the love she once felt for him, now that her father is dead and she is in full possession of all his money, he finds that she has changed completely. She doesn't love him, she doesn't hate him. She no longer believes in love. Aunt Lavinia tries to console him as he is about to leave the beautiful house.
Morris took no notice of her question; he stood musing an instant, with his hat on. "But why the deuce, then, would she never marry?"
"Yes--why indeed?" sighed Mrs. Penniman. And then, as if from a sense of the inadequacy of this explanation, "But you will not despair--you will come back?"
"Come back? Damnation!" And Morris Townsend strode out of the house, leaving Mrs. Penniman staring.