Henry James draws a sharp contrast between the way Morris Townsend looks to the homely wallflower Catherine Sloper when she first meets him in Chapter 4 and the way he looks to her some years later, when he comes to her home on Washington Square in a last, desperate effort to win her back after jilting her so cruelly years before. Here is part of her initial impression of him in Chapter 4:
He had features like young men in pictures; Catherine had never seen such features—so delicate, so chiselled and finished—among the young New Yorkers whom she passed in the streets and met at parties. He was tall and slim, but he looked extremely strong. Catherine thought he looked like a statue. But a statue would not talk like that, and, above all, would not have eyes of so rare a colour.
And here is part of her impression of the same man towards the end of the novel in Chapter 35.
She would never have known him. He was forty-five years old, and his figure was not that of the straight, slim young man she remembered. But it was a very fine person, and a fair and lustrous beard, spreading itself upon a well-presented chest, contributed to its effect. After a moment Catherine recognised the upper half of the face, which, though her visitor’s clustering locks had grown thin, was still remarkably handsome….She continued to look at him, however, and as she did so she made the strangest observation. It seemed to be he, and yet not he; it was the man who had been everything, and yet this person was nothing. How long ago it was—how old she had grown—how much she had lived!....As Catherine looked at him, the story of his life defined itself in his eyes; he had made himself comfortable, and he had never been caught. But even while her perception opened itself to this, she had no desire to catch him; his presence was painful to her, and she only wished he would go.
The reader seems to read the story of Townsend’s life in his changed appearance along with Catherine. He has always been looking for a marriage that would be as ideal for his purposes as the one he might have had with Catherine. He doesn’t love her, but he loves what she owns and the comforts and security she and her big home represent. One of the qualities that makes Henry James revered as a master fiction writer is the way he goes deeper into analyzing his characters than do most other writers. Here is the most striking part of Catherine’s impression of Townsend, as well as her impression of her own changed self, in their final meeting:
…he was close to her; she saw his glossy perfumed beard, and his eyes above it looking strange and hard. It was very different from his old—from his young—face. If she had first seen him this way she would not have liked him.
His eyes looked strange and hard because of the predatory life he had been leading. James doesn’t go into details, but the reader may well imagine what he has been up to, and all the social functions he has attended with the fading hope of finding a rich girl with a less formidable father. He had reached the age when men like him are beginning to wonder if they might be heading into a chilly old age, one in which there will be no more engraved invitations to social functions at which eligible bachelors are always in demand. Without his looks and acquired charm, Morris Townsend would be nothing. Meanwhile, Catherine would be living in a mansion with a much larger annual income than she knew what to do with. She would have done anything for him at one time, but now she is out of his reach.
Henry James received the basic idea for his novel, as he often received his ideas, from a real-life anecdote, and he referred to the fate of the prototype of Morris Townsend as “the retribution of time.” That is a striking phrase because it is something we all have to experience. When Catherine’s Aunt Penniman—still living with her, still the romantic match-maker—asks Townsend:
“But you will not despair—you will come back?”
“Come back? Damnation!” And Morris Townsend strode out of the house, leaving Mrs. Penniman staring.
And Henry James closes the story with a single sentence:
Catherine, meanwhile, in the parlour, picking up her morsel of fancy work, had seated herself with it again—for life, as it were.