Morris Townsend is seen from various perspectives in Washington Square. This characterization is one of the many ways in which his creator Henry James shows his literary genius. Dr. Austin Sloper sees Townsend as "a selfish idler" but recognizes his intelligence, sophistication, and refinement. Catherine sees Townsend as a beautiful, wonderful, charming man who has miraculously fallen in love with her. Lavinia Penniman has a romantic view of Townsend. She is in love with him herself, although she realizes she is too old for that feeling to be reciprocated. She is devoted to him. He has this aging widow completely captivated. This is a talent he displays with women.
But who is the real Morris Townsend? Perhaps he doesn't even know himself. He does not think of himself as selfish or as an idler. He does not consider himself a cad or a villain. He knows he is good-looking and charming. He thinks the world owes him a living just because he is such an admirable gentleman. It probably never even occurs to him to consider whether he is really in love with Catherine, because he has never been in love with anybody but himself. He is not looking for love; he is looking for a life of luxury and pleasure. He is not even truly mercenary; he just knows he needs money in order to live the kind of life he feels is his right. There is only one way to get that kind of money without working, and that way is to marry into money. This seems to be one of the things he learned in Europe.
When he comes to realize he is not going to get his hands on Dr. Sloper's money, and may not even be able to live in that impressive mansion on Washington Square, he sees he is going to have to dump Catherine. Here for the first time Henry James expresses his own opinion of Townsend, which must be the correct one, since James is Townsend's creator:
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.
Morris is ashamed because he has to acknowledge that he was really only after Catherine’s and her father’s money. He doesn’t like to see it in that light. He doesn’t like to be “brutal” or “vulgar.” He must wish he had been born into a wealthy, aristocratic family and had never had to worry about money. The way he squandered his own inheritance on self-indulgence and self-improvement shows that money per se is not of primary importance to him; what he wants is comfort, pleasure, security, and first-class attention to his needs.
No doubt if he had married Catherine he would have been a reasonably satisfactory husband, because he would have allowed her to devote her life to making him happy, and she probably would have been happy to do so. He might have invented some sort of occupation which would allow him to go to a well-appointed office every day and take long business lunches. But he would never have brought in much money. He seems to have no idea of how to earn money, although he knows very well how to spend it. The fact that he is ashamed of himself for the way has deceived Catherine and for the way he has now decided to jilt her is intended to show that he is not a villain but a weak, selfish, rather pitiful human being.