Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514
In mid-19th century New York, Dr. Sloper, a fashionable physician, resents his daughter Catherine because her mother died in childbirth and the girl lacks her mother’s wit and beauty. Catherine has never had a beau until a handsome, charming young man named Morris Townsend makes advances to her. When she falls overwhelmingly in love with Morris, Dr. Sloper investigates and finds that the suitor is a penniless fortune hunter who hopes to gain Catherine’s considerable inheritance.
The doctor orders her to break off the relationship; but, though ordinarily dutiful, she refuses. Dr. Sloper, who scorns his daughter, is at first amused by her resistance. To his surprise and increasing exasperation, she remains firm in her attachment to Morris, even when her father takes her away to Europe. Part of the doctor’s opposition to Morris is the fact that they are much alike, and indeed Dr. Sloper got most of his wealth not from his practice but from his wife.
Resisting her father, Catherine develops a will of her own and stands up to him. Unable to love her himself, the doctor considers his daughter unlovable. Gradually becoming aware of this, she clings all the more to Morris, only to have him jilt her when the doctor threatens to disinherit her. Unwilling to let her father dominate her, Catherine refuses to promise not to marry Morris, though she is now through with him, and she is disinherited except for a moderate income from her mother. When Morris returns years later and tries to win her back, she rejects him.
One of the first and best American psychological novels, WASHINGTON SQUARE was popular on stage and screen as THE HEIRESS, and it remains one of James’s most accessible and compelling works.
Hall, Donald. “Afterword.” In Washington Square, by Henry James. New York: New American Library, 1980. Stresses the moral dilemma represented by Dr. Sloper’s role as both protector and antagonist of his daughter.
Hoffman, Charles G. The Short Novels of Henry James. New York: Bookman Associates, 1957. Discusses the dramatic structure of the book, which was influenced by its serial publication in Cornhill Magazine and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.
Hutchinson, Stuart. Henry James: An American as Modernist. London: Vision Press, 1983. Treats the book as James’s attempt to discover a historical tradition for American literature, which he thought did not share the European sense of belonging to a civilized order.
Samuels, Charles Thomas. The Ambiguity of Henry James. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971. An analysis of James’s use of irony to illustrate Catherine Sloper’s integrity. Compares Dr. Sloper’s fascination with observing innocence to that of the governess in James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898).
Willen, Gerald, ed. Washington Square: The Crowell Critical Library. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1970. A casebook with fourteen critical entries, including excerpts from books on James by Joseph Warren Beach, Edwin T. Bowden, Richard Poirier, Leon Edell, and Maxwell Geismar. Also includes four new essays, the most enlightening being Leo Gurko’s analysis of the distortion of personality by a dominant trait.