Washington Square

by Henry James
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 895

Henry James, discussing his novel Washington Square in a letter to his brother, stated that “the only good thing about the story is the girl.” James, however, underestimated his book. The novel is a masterpiece in the interweaving of the moral and the psychological dimensions with the influence of an economy-oriented society on the different characters. Catherine Sloper emerges as a woman who defies her overprotective father, who is a pillar of society, but her victory is a small one, for which she must pay a great price. Dr. Austin Sloper regards his daughter as a dull and unattractive heir whose major function is to see to his welfare. She, however, awakens to the father’s tyranny, to the fortune-hunting motives of her suitor, and to the meddling of her aunt, the three people she loves and trusts. Catherine moves from her unthinking acceptance of the idea that as a woman she is inferior to a sense of self-worth that challenges the rigid value system of Washington Square.

Sloper, a scholarly doctor who lives and works in the best society of New York City, is a local celebrity whose path to prosperity is made easier by his marriage. When after the death of his wealthy wife and young son Sloper is left with a disappointing daughter, he leaves her to the care of his widowed sister, Lavinia Penniman, whom he considers to be of “foolish indirectness and obliquity of character.” He does not expect much from Catherine except devotion, but his intellectual pride makes him incapable of loving her. His own devotion to business leads him to think of Catherine as a marketable product, which means that she need only be “clever” in womanly ways—knowing how to dress and how to talk to gentlemen, and how to be efficient in knitting or embroidering.

Sloper is obsessed with his powerful social position and convinced of his intellect. He is proud of his ability to judge and categorize people, and he is convinced that Catherine, whom he considers “abnormally deficient” in intelligence, must be protected from fortune hunters. When Morris Townsend starts calling on her, Sloper is suspicious. His investigation reveals that Townsend is not a gentleman. He lives off his sister and has no money or prospects. Catherine, however, is not led by her father’s warnings. Instead, encouraged by Mrs. Penniman, Townsend becomes for her the embodiment of romance. Her infatuation is stronger than her sense of duty to her father, and although Townsend is not romantically sincere, he awakens in Catherine her father’s own selfishness. She begins to see that he does not treat her well, especially during the European tour that Sloper intends as a means of cooling her relationship with Townsend. When he abandons his daughter in the Alps, after she refuses to give up her suitor, the doctor goes too far. According to Sloper’s economic view, the trip should make Catherine more valuable in the marketplace, but since she insists that Townsend be the buyer, he changes his will to make her less of a financial asset.

When Catherine observes that her father is a cold man of business and intellectual pride, she accepts her economic loss without regret and resolves to marry Townsend immediately. When Townsend reneges on his promises, Catherine refuses to give her father the satisfaction of knowing that she was jilted. She also refuses to promise Sloper that she will never marry Townsend, but when Mrs. Penniman, not understanding the change in her surrogate daughter, brings Townsend back years later for another chance at marriage, Catherine is morally outraged.

Catherine wins the battle of money and sex, but it kills her ability to love. Betrayed by the three people she loves, she learns merely to “fill the void.” She becomes a “kindly maiden-aunt” to girls who confide in her, and she is an “inevitable figure at all respectable entertainments.” She tolerates her meddling aunt, who continues to live with her in the fashionable house in Washington Square. Catherine grows from what her father considers a dull girl into a perceptive woman who does what she thinks is right. Yet, she feels that the “great facts” of her career are that Townsend trifled with her affection, and that her father broke its spring. Catherine is not able to separate entirely from the confinements of her world, but she does confront the wrongdoings of her father and her suitor. She does not yield to the hypocrisy of society. Though she does not change that society, she is aware of the inner transformation that gives her a sense of accomplishment.

Sloper is right about Townsend, but he is a victim of his pride. He is so obsessed with his sense of power, including his assumed rationality, that he is able to love only himself. He labels his daughter an inferior product and exults in dominating her. Her rebellion becomes an entertainment for him, but he underestimates her. His confidence in himself and in socioeconomic prevalence blinds him to the change in Catherine, and he is unaware of the prejudices that limit him and make him morally inferior to Catherine.

In Washington Square, James focuses on Catherine’s efforts to attain an identity in an environment dominated by men such as her father. By challenging a value system that protects and promotes male superiority, she proves Sloper wrong.

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Washington Square