Washington Square

by Henry James

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Has Catherine in Washington Square transitioned from a weak to a strong character?

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It is impossible to answer this question fully without giving away the ending of the book and the important plot points that make it such a good story. For those who are curious, Catherine does end up marrying Morris Townsend but not out of love. It is a pragmatic decision on her part. She realizes that her father is right when he says that a woman must marry because she requires a man's protection and security in life. She also knows that Morris Townsend will be able to give her this support--and considerably more than she could ever hope for from Dr Sloper who would probably cut her off with only a pittance if she defied him by refusing this suitor.

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Catherine has an extremely traumatic experience which makes her a stronger person by forcing her to recognize and accept the truth about herself and about humanity in general. Almost simultaneouosly she realizes that Morris Townsend does not love her at all but is only interested in her money. At the same time she realizes that her own father does not really love her since she cannot measure up to his high standards. She realizes that he was right in taking Morris Townsend for a fortune hunter because he knew that she could not appeal to Townsend in any other way. And finally, she has to recognize that she is--as Henry James suggests in guarded language--homely, overweight, awkward, and not especially intelligent. All of these truths coming at once are overwhelming. She takes some time to recover, but when she does she is a different person. For one thing, she is resigned to be an old maid. She will never really trust any man again. She be self-reliant and self-sufficient. Everybody wants love and friendship, but these things are hard to find and hard to keep.

There have been two motion picture versions of Henry James's short novel. The first was titled "The Heiress" and starred Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper. In that version she becomes a bitter, lonely old maid. The later version, titled "Washington Square," has a definite feminist spin. Catherine ends up single but extremely wealthy and enjoying a life of independence. She has learned that a woman doesn't need a man to have a satisfactory life. She enjoys greater than most women who still believe that marriage and motherhood are the only proper careers for a woman. Although Catherine is unable to have children, she is surrounded by little nieces and nephews who all love her. "The Heiress" was filmed appropriately in black and white, while "Washington Square," which is filled with happy music, was filmed, also appropriately, in beautiful color. Both film adaptations show that Catherine has become a stronger person as a result of her suffering.


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