The primary themes in Henry James' "Washington Square" are family, home, and betrayal. Nearly all of the characters are afraid of being betrayed in one way or another. Dr. Sloper feels betrayed by his family, which brings the reader to question the place of home and family. What is family? What does it mean to be home? Can there be forgiveness for betrayal? The story also deals with issues of imagination and truth. Can the imagination be deceiving?
The short novel has a fairly simple construction. The conflict involves two men fighting over a woman. In this case one of the men is her father. The other is a handsome fortune hunter. The woman is neither the protagonist nor the antagonist but what used to be called "the bone of contention," i.e., the thing over which the protagonist and antagonist are fighting. In Hollywood the bone of contention is called "the MacGuffin." James' Washington Square offers an excellent opportunity to study the mechanics of story writing because of the handling of the conflict. Catherine Sloper is the viewpoint character and the person most strongly affected by the contest between the two men, but she is helpless to determine her fate. Men care more about money and power than they do about love. Poor Catherine cares more about love than about money or social position or personal pride--but she finds out that love is a scarce commodity, at least in the world of the upper classes. The theme of people marrying for money was one of Henry James's favorites, as can be seen in such novels as The Wings of the Dove and Portrait of a Lady.