How does Catherine Sloper in Washington Square contradict and coincide with a perception of a literary heroine?
The stereotypical literary heroine, at least of the older English novels, was beautiful, resourceful, graceful, socially intelligent, and often much sought after by men, although she might come from a poor family. This stereotypical literary heroine of the past had the almost magical capability of making men fall in love with her at first sight. She combined the powers of Cinderella and those of the heroine of "Beauty and the Beast."
With Catherine Sloper, Henry James seems to be deliberately trying to go against most of the traditional characteristics of a young literary heroine. He describes his heroine in polite but unflattering terms.
She was not ugly; she had simply a plain, dull, gentle countenance. The most that had ever been said for her was that she had a "nice" face, and, though she was an heiress, no one had ever thought of regarding her as a belle.
In Henry James' time it was not permissible to present much explicit description of a lady's body, but James gives many indications that Catherine was overweight.
In her younger years she was a good deal of a romp, and, though it is an awkward confession to make about one's heroine, I must add that she was something of a glutton. She never, that I know of, stole raisins out of the pantry; but she devoted her pocket-money to the purchase of cream-cakes.
Catherine has little to recommend her as far as appearance goes. And James does not give her an intellect or a personality to compensate.
Catherine was decidedly not clever; she was not quick with her book, nor, indeed, with anything else.
Catherine is a nice, docile, obedient, kind-hearted girl, but she is a shy, awkward wallflower. James created her as he did for one specific purpose. He wanted the reader to understand that when the handsome, sophisticated Morris Townsend suddenly seems to fall passionately in love with her, it has to be because she is an heiress. She already has a personal income of $10,000 a year which she inherited from her mother, and when her father dies she will have an income of $30,000 a year. In the 1840s, when the story takes place, that kind of income would have been equivalent to ten or twenty times as much in today's dollars. Furthermore, she will own a mansion on Washington Square full of splending furnishings, paintings, statues, and ceramics.
James' negative characterization of Catherine automatically characterizes Morris Townsend as what he is--a fortune hunter. Dr. Sloper sees through him immediately, even though his daughter is so captivated by Townsend's looks and manners, and so hungry for affection, that she is swept off her feet. The conflict in the story is between two strong and clever men, with poor Catherine pushed and pulled back and forth between them.
Ironically, they are not fighting over her the way two lovers will fight over a beautiful, desirable heroine in a Victorian novel. Neither Townsend nor her own father really loves Catherine; they are only concerned about her money. Townsend wants to get his hands on it; Dr. Sloper fears he will squander it and leave his daughter penniless. Money is a very important factor in many of Henry James' novels, including The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Portrait of a Lady.