Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*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...

(The entire section is 721 words.)