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Europe's Influence on Morris Townsend

Morris Townsend is not only handsome and intelligent, but he is charming, refined, and sophisticated. Without ever saying so directly, Henry James implies that this young man has acquired his polish from his exposure to the older civilization of Europe. Townsend has invested his entire inheritance in "broadening himself," perfecting his tastes and his manners. As a result he is markedly superior to the average young American man in every respect--except enterprise. He is well aware of his attractiveness to young women, not only because of his good looks and intelligence, but because of his acquired air of gentility and breeding.

At the same time that Europe has had such a positive influence on Morris, however, it has had a compensatory negative influence as well. He has acquired a taste for luxury and leisure so characteristic of the upper class young men he met over there, along with a positive disdain for labor. The two things seem to go together--refinement and indolence. He wants all the best things life has to offer, but he doesn't want to have to work for them. This has traditionally been less of a problem for eligible but indigent young men in Europe than in America. It was perfectly acceptable for the European male to marry for money and spend the rest of his life doing nothing.

Morris may have returned to America expecting to do pretty much the same thing over here. In fact, while he was squandering all his capital in foreign cities he may have been planning to maintain his pleasant lifestyle simply by finding a rich American girl to captivate with his charms and sweep off her feet, as he does so adroitly with Catherine Sloper. But Catherine's father might be said to represent Puritanical America in contrast to shrewd, practical, corrupt old Europe. Dr. Sloper has no tolerance for a lazy fortune hunter, however refined. Morris may have been expecting to run into a rich father who would welcome such a "trophy" bridegroom into the family, a young man who could take his unmarriageable daughter off his hands and present him with bright and bonny grandchildren--but poor Morris ran into a brick wall instead.

Henry James's Washington Square is said to be unique because it is set in America rather than in Europe; but there is plenty of Europe to be seen in Washington Square. In fact, it might be said that Morris Townsend has brought back a large chunk of Europe along with him. In the end it might be said that Europe has not only polished him, but polished him off at the same time.

Catherine Sloper

Catherine Sloper is described as shy, awkward, and starved for affection. Her character has probably been largely formed by her father, whom she admires and adores. Dr. Austin Sloper treats her with courtesy, but he does not love her. Catherine may not be very bright, she is sensitive and intuitive enough to feel that she cannot win her father's love or even his serious attention. She senses that he does not love her, and, as is characteristic of children in general, she assumes there must be something wrong with herself.

Her awkwardness and shyness, her tendency to want to hide from the world, are attributable to the rather strained relationship the motherless girl has had with her father throughout her life. He loved his wife, who died in childbirth. He cannot accept Catherine as a substitute for her mother because Catherine lacks the qualities he loved in his wife. Catherine's mother was beautiful, witty, charming, intelligent, a good companion, housekeeper and hostess. Dr. Sloper probably blames Catherine unconsciously for her mother's death. It is Catherine's misfortune to be competing unwittingly with a dead woman she never knew.

Her father distrusts Morris Townsend from the beginning because he can't help thinking that an intelligent and sophisticated man like Townsend must really see Catherine in the same way Sloper sees her himself; and therefore Catherine's father deduces that Townsend must be interested in his daughter solely because she stands to inherit a lot of money. Catherine is so starved for love that she is an easy victim for her calculating suitor. She doesn't understand why her father can't see him the way she sees him—because she doesn't understand the way her father sees her. When Townsend jilts her, she has to understand that he was only after her money and that her father was completely right about his motives. She must also understand that men will always be after her money, but may not be interested in her. When she realizes that Townsend never really loved her at all, she has to realize concomitantly that her father never really loved her either. 

Four Views of Morris Townsend

Morris Townsend is seen from various perspectives in Washington Square. This characterization is one of the many ways in which his creator Henry James shows his literary genius. Dr. Austin Sloper sees Townsend as "a selfish idler" but recognizes his intelligence, sophistication, and refinement. Catherine sees Townsend as a beautiful, wonderful, charming man who has miraculously fallen in love with her. Lavinia Penniman has a romantic view of Townsend. She is in love with him herself, although she realizes she is too old for that feeling to be reciprocated. She is devoted to him. He has this aging widow completely captivated. This is a talent he displays with women.

But who is the real Morris Townsend? Perhaps he doesn't even know himself. He does not think of himself as selfish or as an idler. He does not consider himself a cad or a villain. He knows he is good-looking and charming. He thinks the world owes him a living just because he is such an admirable gentleman. It probably never even occurs to him to consider whether he is really in love with Catherine, because he has never been in love with anybody but himself. He is not looking for love; he is looking for a life of luxury and pleasure. He is not even truly mercenary; he just knows he needs money in order to live the kind of life he feels is his right. There is only one way to get that kind of money without working, and that way is to marry into money. This seems to be one of the things he learned in Europe.

When he comes to realize he is not going to get his hands on Dr. Sloper's money, and may not even be able to live in that impressive mansion on Washington Square, he sees he is going to have to dump Catherine. Here for the first time Henry James expresses his own opinion of Townsend, which must be the correct one, since James is Townsend's creator:

Morris walked along a moment, and then he repeated harshly, "I must give her up!"

"I think I understand you," said Mrs. Penniman gently.

"I certainly say it distinctly enough—brutally and vulgarly enough."

He was ashamed of himself, and his shame was uncomfortable; and as he was extremely intolerant of discomfort, he felt vicious and cruel. He wanted to abuse somebody, and he began, cautiously—for he was always cautious—with himself.

Morris is ashamed because he has to acknowledge that he was really only after Catherine’s and her father’s money. He doesn’t like to see it in that light. He doesn’t like to be “brutal” or “vulgar.” He must wish he had been born into a wealthy, aristocratic family and had never had to worry about money. The way he squandered his own inheritance on self-indulgence and self-improvement shows that money per se is not of primary importance to him; what he wants is comfort, pleasure, security, and first-class attention to his needs.

No doubt if he had married Catherine he would have been a reasonably satisfactory husband, because he would have allowed her to devote her life to making him happy, and she probably would have been happy to do so. He might have invented some sort of occupation which would allow him to go to a well-appointed office every day and take long business lunches. But he would never have brought in much money. He seems to have no idea of how to earn money, although he knows very well how to spend it. The fact that he is ashamed of himself for the way has deceived Catherine and for the way he has now decided to jilt her is intended to show that he is not a villain but a weak, selfish, rather pitiful human being.

Morris Townsend's Acquired Charm

A good fiction writer or dramatist will usually introduce a character "in character," that is, doing or saying something characteristic. For example, when Willy Loman is introduced in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Willy is carrying two heavy sample cases and looks exhausted. In Henry James' Washington Square when Morris Townsend is introduced to Catherine Sloper he immediately displays his characteristic charm:

Mr. Townsend, leaving her no time for embarrassment, began to talk with an easy smile, as if he had known her for a year.

“What a delightful party!  What a charming house!  What an interesting family!  What a pretty girl your cousin is!”

This is the sort of sophistication Townsend went to Europe to acquire. He learned to praise and flatter, and he does this throughout the novel. He learned this trick from the more urbane but not necessarily more honest Europeans and has imported it to America with him. It works pretty well on most Americans, but it does not make a good impression on Catherine's father, who may not be as sophisticated as Townsend but is every bit as intelligent and not susceptible to artificial charm consisting of smiles, flattery, appreciation, attention, and praise. These tricks can be fairly easily learned, but they can provoke resentment and mistrust in a certain percentage of people—especially Americans!

Morris Townsend's Transformation

Henry James draws a sharp contrast between the way Morris Townsend looks to the homely wallflower Catherine Sloper when she first meets him in Chapter 4 and the way he looks to her some years later, when he comes to her home on Washington Square in a last, desperate effort to win her back after jilting her so cruelly years before. Here is part of her initial impression of him in Chapter 4:

He had features like young men in pictures; Catherine had never seen such features—so delicate, so chiselled and finished—among the young New Yorkers whom she passed in the streets and met at parties.  He was tall and slim, but he looked extremely strong.  Catherine thought he looked like a statue.  But a statue would not talk like that, and, above all, would not have eyes of so rare a colour. 

And here is part of her impression of the same man towards the end of the novel in Chapter 35.

She would never have known him.  He was forty-five years old, and his figure was not that of the straight, slim young man she remembered.  But it was a very fine person, and a fair and lustrous beard, spreading itself upon a well-presented chest, contributed to its effect.  After a moment Catherine recognised the upper half of the face, which, though her visitor’s clustering locks had grown thin, was still remarkably handsome….She continued to look at him, however, and as she did so she made the strangest observation.  It seemed to be he, and yet not he; it was the man who had been everything, and yet this person was nothing.  How long ago it was—how old she had grown—how much she had lived!....As Catherine looked at him, the story of his life defined itself in his eyes; he had made himself comfortable, and he had never been caught.  But even while her perception opened itself to this, she had no desire to catch him; his presence was painful to her, and she only wished he would go.

The reader seems to read the story of Townsend’s life in his changed appearance along with Catherine. He has always been looking for a marriage that would be as ideal for his purposes as the one he might have had with Catherine. He doesn’t love her, but he loves what she owns and the comforts and security she and her big home represent. One of the qualities that makes Henry James revered as a master fiction writer is the way he goes deeper into analyzing his characters than do most other writers. Here is the most striking part of Catherine’s impression of Townsend, as well as her impression of her own changed self, in their final meeting:

…he was close to her; she saw his glossy perfumed beard, and his eyes above it looking strange and hard.  It was very different from his old—from his young—face.  If she had first seen him this way she would not have liked him.

His eyes looked strange and hard because of the predatory life he had been leading. James doesn’t go into details, but the reader may well imagine what he has been up to, and all the social functions he has attended with the fading hope of finding a rich girl with a less formidable father. He had reached the age when men like him are beginning to wonder if they might be heading into a chilly old age, one in which there will be no more engraved invitations to social functions at which eligible bachelors are always in demand. Without his looks and acquired charm, Morris Townsend would be nothing. Meanwhile, Catherine would be living in a mansion with a much larger annual income than she knew what to do with. She would have done anything for him at one time, but now she is out of his reach.

Henry James received the basic idea for his novel, as he often received his ideas, from a real-life anecdote, and he referred to the fate of the prototype of Morris Townsend as “the retribution of time.” That is a striking phrase because it is something we all have to experience. When Catherine’s Aunt Penniman—still living with her, still the romantic match-maker—asks Townsend:

“But you will not despair—you will come back?”

he responds:

“Come back?  Damnation!”  And Morris Townsend strode out of the house, leaving Mrs. Penniman staring.

And Henry James closes the story with a single sentence:

Catherine, meanwhile, in the parlour, picking up her morsel of fancy work, had seated herself with it again—for life, as it were.