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Catherine Sloper is the protagonist in Washington Square. During the course of Henry James’s novel, the reader sees her progress from a docile young woman to a mature adult. Following the death of her mother and brother, as the only living child in a wealthy New York family, Catherine is expected to marry a man from her own social station. Her early life is dominated by Dr. Austin Sloper, her harsh, controlling father. A plain, unassuming, straightforward person, Catherine is susceptible to manipulation by her relatives, especially her aunt Lavinia. The novel follows Catherine’s personal development through her father’s opposition to her marrying the man she loves, who proves as shallow as her father had predicted, into gaining firm conviction in her own self-worth and independence.

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Catherine Sloper is the protagonist in Washington Square. She is the daughter of the wealthy, imperious, and brilliant physician Austin Sloper. In the marriage game carried out at the time, Catherine offers little of interest to prospective suitors. Her father considers her weak, limited, and plain. However, she has the promise of a fortune from her father. This is why Morris Townsend tries to court Catherine, who quickly seems to fall for her attractive, gold-digging suitor. Catherine seems weak and easily manipulated, but by the end of the novel, she is able to resist the aging, weak Morris. It is Catherine who is in control of the situation, not the ineffective, hapless Morris. Catherine is transformed throughout the course of the novel from a girl everyone considers a target to an independent woman who can clearly see the intentions of those around her and who can stand up for herself.

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Catherine Sloper is described as shy, awkward, and starved for affection. Her character has probably been largely formed by her father, whom she admires and adores. Dr. Austin Sloper treats her with courtesy, but he does not love her. Catherine may not be very bright, she is sensitive and intuitive enough to feel that she cannot win her father's love or even his serious attention. She senses that he does not love her, and, as is characteristic of children in general, she assumes there must be something wrong with herself.

Her awkwardness and shyness, her tendency to want to hide from the world, are attributable to the rather strained relationship the motherless girl has had with her father throughout her life. He loved his wife, who died in childbirth. He cannot accept Catherine as a substitute for her mother because Catherine lacks the qualities he loved in his wife. Catherine's mother was beautiful, witty, charming, intelligent, a good companion, housekeeper and hostess. Dr. Sloper probably blames Catherine unconsciously for her mother's death. It is Catherine's misfortune to be competing unwittingly with a dead woman she never knew.

Her father distrusts Morris Townsend from the beginning because he can't help thinking that an intelligent and sophisticated man like Townsend must really see Catherine in the same way Sloper sees her himself; and therefore Catherine's father deduces that Townsend must be interested in his daughter solely because she stands to inherit a lot of money. Catherine is so starved for love that she is an easy victim for her calculating suitor. She doesn't understand why her father can't see him the way she sees him—because she doesn't understand the way her father sees her. When Townsend jilts her, she has to understand that he was only after her money and that her father was completely right about his motives. She must also understand that men will always be after her money, but may not be interested in her. When she realizes that Townsend never really loved her at all, she has to realize concomitantly that her father never really loved her either.

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