Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306
Washington Square, published in 1881, is an unusual novel for Henry James in that he located its setting in the United States. By that time, James rarely made trips back to the land of his birth, but he had yet to forsake it completely, as he did prior to his death by becoming a British subject. The novel's main theme, however, is a familiar one: the tale of a life unlived. Catherine Sloper is cursed with what was often fatal in New York society of the time: she had plain looks and little personality to compensate. Yet she did have considerable wealth, or at least the prospects of it after the death of her father. For this reason Morris Townsend, a man of shadowy background, finds her an easy target for gold digging. He begins a courtship that he believes will go smoothly because it is unlikely that he has any present or future competition. He also has an annoying ally in the person of Mrs. Penniman, Catherine’s aunt. Mrs. Penniman rejoices in the chance to play matchmaker, living out her own romantic fantasies through the lives of Morris and her niece. Catherine quickly falls for the attractive and attentive Morris Townsend, but meets with opposition from her father, the distinguished physician Dr. Austin Sloper. Dr. Sloper controls his home like a kingdom centered on the fashionable Washington Square district of New York City, and he sees Morris as an evil interloper intent on using Catherine to gain access to a better lifestyle. The machinations of Morris, Mrs. Penniman, and Dr. Sloper form the vehicle by which the character of the weak yet surprisingly independent Catherine is developed. In the end, as Dr. Sloper’s fears prove justified, Catherine emerges even stronger than before, frustrating the plans of her father, her aunt, and even her fiancé.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 852
Peace, especially of the domestic variety, becomes increasingly important to Dr. Sloper when he enters his fifties. Intelligent, poised, and distinguished in his profession, he is accustomed to meeting life on his terms. He suffers the loss of his wife and a young son many years before, but the passage of time softens this blow. Now he dwells quietly and comfortably in his mansion on Washington Square with his only remaining child, Catherine, and his widowed sister, Mrs. Penniman.
Neither of his companions inspires the doctor with great fondness. His sister has just the sort of nature, incurably romantic, devious, and feminine, to set his teeth on edge; he sees her presence in his establishment as merely a necessary inconvenience to provide female supervision for his growing daughter. As to his daughter, Dr. Sloper thinks Catherine is a good girl but incurably dull. By her twenties, she never has a romantic interest or even the prospect of such. She is shyly fond of her father and very much afraid of him, especially when an ironical tone creeps into his voice. He is, however, generally kind and courteous to her, though more self-contained than an adoring daughter might wish.
Catherine’s taste for ornate dress is one of the characteristics that her father finds especially trying. She long cherishes this taste without venturing to express it, but when she reaches the age of twenty, she buys herself a red satin gown trimmed with gold fringe. Her father inwardly grimaces at the thought that a child of his should be both ugly and overdressed.
Catherine wears her red gown on the evening when she first meets Morris Townsend. The occasion is a party, given by her aunt, Mrs. Almond. Catherine quickly becomes convinced that she never met a young man so handsome, clever, and attentive. When his absorption with Catherine attracts notice, Townsend shifts his attentions to Mrs. Penniman, whose romantic sensibilities are soon aflutter with delight and anticipation. Before the evening ends, she manages to intimate to this agreeable young man that he is welcome to call in Washington Square.
Soon Townsend is in regular attendance on Catherine. Mrs. Penniman, undertaking the role of a middle-aged Cupid, presses Townsend’s claims and assists his cause as ardently as she dares. Dr. Sloper, on the other hand, is at first skeptical and then becomes concerned. An interview with the young man strengthens his conviction that Townsend’s charming manner is a mask for irresponsibility and selfishness. He suspects that Townsend is living off the meager resources of his sister, a widow with five children, and the doctor determines to investigate the matter. Before he can do so, however, Catherine tells him that Townsend proposed to her and that she is anxious to accept him.
When his suspicions are confirmed by a talk with Townsend’s sister, the doctor is more than ever convinced that Catherine’s suitor is a fortune hunter. For once, however, his objections fail to sway the infatuated girl. As a last resort, Dr. Sloper declares that if Catherine marries Townsend he will disinherit her. This measure will not leave her penniless by any means, since an inheritance from her mother will provide her a comfortable income, but it will reduce by two-thirds the amount Catherine would otherwise be able to expect.
Mrs. Penniman, alarmed, counsels delay, and Townsend agrees to part with Catherine while she accompanies her father to Europe. Both Townsend and Mrs. Penniman hope that time will soften the doctor’s obdurate opposition to the match. Catherine, while agreeing to make the trip, cherishes no such illusions. When she and her father return several months later, the situation remains unchanged. Catherine is determined to go ahead with the marriage, but Townsend keeps putting her off. One day, he vanishes from New York altogether.
Years pass before she sees him again. By that time, Dr. Sloper is dead; fearful to the end that Townsend might reenter Catherine’s life, he left his fortune to charity. One night, while Catherine is sitting quietly at home, there is a ring at the door. Townsend comes back, secretly encouraged by the unwearying Mrs. Penniman. Bearded, heavier, and now forty-five years old, he is still personable; his manner makes it clear that he expects a warm welcome in Washington Square. The lapse of twenty years might have taken much from him, including the European wife of whom Catherine vaguely heard, but he did not lose the bright assurance with which he now waits for his words to work their old magic on Catherine’s heart.
He stands, hat in hand, murmuring warm phrases, but Catherine does not ask him to sit down. She looks at him as if he is a stranger, repelling all advances and brushing off all explanations with a cool imperturbability worthy of the old doctor himself. For Catherine there is no longer any question of yielding to his charm: She suffered too much. This time it will be she who sends him away. She dismisses him with a finality he has no choice but to accept and to understand.