What is the thematic and structural purpose of Washington Square the novel?
Washington Square is Henry James’s most popular novel, although he himself did not have a high opinion of it. It is also his easiest novel to follow because his writing style had not yet become as complicated as it is in such great works as The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove. Washington Square is extremely well constructed, and all the characters are well drawn. The novel was made into a successful play titled “The Heiress,” and the play was adapted into a classic film in 1949 with that same title. The film featured Olivia De Havilland, who won an Oscar for Best Actress. Another film titled “Washington Square” was made much later and given a feminist spin.
As with so many of James's novels, Washington Square is about the corrupting power of money.
What is impressive about James’s novel is its structure. He has two strong-willed men fighting over possession of a weak-willed woman. Dr. Sloper, Catherine’s father, knows that Morris Townsend is a “selfish idler” who is only interested in his daughter’s money. But Townsend will not give the girl up in spite of her father’s refusal to condone their marriage. Catherine is torn between the two men. She loves both of them—but she is forced to realize that neither of them really loves her. This causes a dramatic change in Catherine’s character, which is the most moving and impressive part of the novel.
Washington Square could be used as a model for aspiring novelists. It is of the highest excellence in plotting and characterization. Henry James has often been called “The Master,” and he shows in this novel, as in so many of his other novels and short stories, that he deserves that title.