Washington Square Chapters 1 and 2 Summary and Analysis
by Henry James

Start Your Free Trial

Download Washington Square Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Chapters 1 and 2 Summary and Analysis

Summary
In New York City during the 1840s and 1850s, Dr. Austin Sloper is the epitome of the scientific man that was becoming the hallmark of the nineteenth-century world. He has an impeachable reputation, both in his medical practice and in his social life. He is the type of doctor who is considered clever, well-educated, and scholarly. In his private life, he marries a woman from a wealthy family, whose beauty and charm help him to navigate in the higher social circles of New York society. He is delighted at the birth of his firstborn, a son to carry on the Sloper name. However, at the age of three the boy dies. The birth of the second Sloper child—a girl named Catherine, after her mother—is an added disappointment. Moreover, one week after the birth of the child, Mrs. Sloper dies. Thus passes the only female for whom Dr. Sloper has any true love. Neither Catherine nor his sister Mrs. Lavinia Penniman stands high in his regard. His other sister, Mrs. Almond, stands higher, simply because she is a female version of himself, especially with her negative outlook for Catherine’s future as a lady in New York society.

Dr. Sloper’s first sister, Mrs. Lavinia Penniman, was left alone and childless when her clergyman husband died. Mrs. Penniman comes to New York, intending to stay with her brother until she finds suitable lodgings. The lodgings are never found, and Mrs. Penniman becomes a fixture in the Sloper household, ostensibly to help in the rearing of her niece, Catherine.

Dr. Sloper’s main request of Mrs. Penniman is that she ensure that Catherine grows up to be a “clever” woman. He has great fears of having a fool in the family, and he counts on Mrs. Penniman to prevent this from happening. However, it is not to be. Catherine is not a fool, but she does not become “clever.” She is not beautiful, like her mother, but neither is she ugly: she is simply plain. She continues to be a disappointment to her father, who predicts that no one will ever fall in love with her, though he can imagine that Mrs. Penniman will try to convince her niece that a young man with a moustache, Morris Townsend, is in love with her. All in all, Dr. Sloper has no expectations of his daughter. On Catherine’s part, her greatest desire is to please him. She fails in this, as she is aware, yet she continues to make the effort. As much as Dr. Sloper would like to be proud of his daughter, he determines that there is nothing to be proud of. Catherine grows up to be painfully shy and seemingly dim. Yet she is in fact the softest, kindest creature in the world. This softness, however, will in the end be revealed as a solid strength as she comes to grips with reality.

Analysis
Dr. Sloper’s character is revealed to be highly methodical. He is described as “scholarly” and a man of science, and he thinks in terms of facts and figures. It is this characterization of the methodical man that will be used in juxtaposition to the emotional vulnerability of Catherine throughout the novel. He is seen as a man in control, one who holds life and death in his hands, as any doctor does....

(The entire section is 842 words.)