Washington Square

by Henry James

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*Washington Square

*Washington Square. Fashionable neighborhood at the southern end of New York City’s Manhattan borough that sits near the transition between the narrow, helter-skelter streets with quaint names of the original colonial settlement and the carefully planned grid of streets and avenues with numbers for names above the island’s Fourth Street. Henry James himself was born near Washington Square.

Catherine’s father, Dr. Austin Sloper, first lived near city hall in the older part of Manhattan, which by the time in which the novel is set was becoming commercialized and unfashionable. Dr. Sloper’s late wife came from a neighborhood even farther south—the Battery. After her death, Dr. Sloper moves with his sister, Mrs. Penniman, and Catherine, to Washington Square itself. The novel provides a vivid picture of the Slopers’ house: its front and back parlors; the doctor’s study or library; Catherine’s bedroom at the back, on the third floor; and Mrs. Penniman’s bedroom on the same floor at the front of the house.

In the novel, the contrast between Washington Square and the city around it helps James to communicate the contrast between his central character, Catherine, and the world around her. Even though Dr. Sloper owns the house, readers are likely to see it as attuned to Catherine. She is a large, sensitive, intelligent, shy, guileless woman; her calm and steady character is at the heart of the novel. Moreover, she leaves Washington Square by herself only once, when she makes a desperate walk to Duane Street. As she is surrounded by her father, her aunt, and her would-be lover, Morris Townsend, so Washington Square itself is portrayed as an oasis of “established repose” in the midst of a “long, shrill city.”

*New York City

*New York City. Contrasts between Washington Square and New York City as a whole are furthered by other references to places in New York. Mrs. Montgomery’s small house, not nearly so grand as Catherine’s, is several blocks east on Second Avenue. Mrs. Penniman meets Townsend in lower-class or desolate neighborhoods: at an oyster saloon west of Washington Square on Seventh Avenue and at a street corner where they see vacant lots and unpaved streets. Mrs. Almond lives uptown on an embryonic street that has a number for its name.

New York is not only busy, it is changing: Old parts are torn down, and new houses and businesses spring up as new numbered streets are developed. Mrs. Montgomery’s house is gone by the time the story is told. One enterprising young businessman remarks that he will buy a new house every five years to move north with the cutting edge of the bustling city. Amid all this activity Catherine remains still, an emblem of her constancy, her stability. Once she considers moving to a smaller brownstone house farther north, but decides to remain in Washington Square, which hardly changes itself.

*United States

*United States. Not only does the busy world of New York surround the calm of Washington Square, but readers also get hints of the energies of the nation beyond that city’s boundaries. Townsend says he will go to New Orleans to buy cotton. He writes Catherine from Philadelphia.


*Europe. The Old World continent has two functions in this novel. Townsend’s wanderings take him to Europe: He has been to Paris and London, and he knows some Spanish. Later, Catherine learns that Townsend has married a European woman.

European scenes also help to bring the conflict between Catherine and her father to a climax. In an attempt to make Catherine forget Townsend, Dr. Sloper takes her on a Grand Tour of Europe....

(This entire section contains 721 words.)

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They travel in Italy, Switzerland, and England. James tells his readers little about specific places, stating only that the relics of ancient civilizations make no impression on Catherine, with one exception. About halfway through the tour, Catherine and Dr. Sloper walk to a remote valley in the Alps, where her father confronts her. When she refuses to give up Townsend, she thinks that her father might strangle her. Readers worry that Catherine’s father might leave her behind. This scene, the closest the novel comes to exhibiting violence, is in an appropriately wild natural region thousands of miles from the quiet of Washington Square, Catherine’s usual setting.


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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.


Critical Essays