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Washington Square is a novel by Henry James. Published in 1880, it tells the story of Catherine Sloper, the daughter of wealthy doctor Austin Sloper. The primary theme of the novel focuses on the emotional effects of the manipulation on the innocent main character.
Catherine is an unspectacular, though intelligent woman, who is not particularly well-suited for the demands of upper-class life. When she is courted and eventually engaged to a man her father does not trust, Morris Townsend, she becomes ensnared in a contest of wills and strategies between the two men. While Catherine’s motivations are pure, her father’s and Townsend’s are suspect. Does Townsend just want her for her money? Will her father cut her out of her inheritance if she marries Townsend?
Catherine tries to navigate her way through life while dealing with both men. When she agrees to marry Townsend, her father’s attempts to pry her away from him eventually damages their relationship to the breaking point. Ironically, her father appears to be proved correct in his suspicions when Townsend, fearing that Catherine will be disinherited, breaks of the engagement.
At this point, Catherine has been broken, to a degree. She settles into a life of spinsterhood. When her father dies he leaves her only a small inheritance. Catherine has lost on all counts—she has no husband and no fortune. When Townsend reappears in the novel’s resolution in an effort to rekindle their relationship, she finally expresses her true feelings:
"I can't forget--I don't forget," said Catherine. "You treated me too badly. I felt it very much; I felt it for years." And then she went on, with her wish to show him that he must not come to her this way. "I can't begin again--I can't take it up. Everything is dead and buried. It was too serious; it made a great change in my life.”
Thus the novel has completed its theme: the fragility of human emotion, battered by the machinations of others, can cause irrevocable harm to the innocent. The best that one can do is deal with it with as much equanimity as possible.
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