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Washington Square Paperback – Dec 11 2010
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About the Author
Adrian Poole has edited three James editions for OWC. He has written extensively on James and his books include the VSI on Tragedy. He is one of the general editors of the Complete Fiction of Henry James to be published by CUP in 30 volumes. He is the editor of the Cambridge Companion to English Novelists (forthcoming, 2010).
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Dr. Sloper, whose mansion on Washington Square is the setting for most chapters of the novel, is a popular and successful society doctor, made wealthy by his marriage to a New York belle and by his energetic practice. He's a man of intelligence and wit, with a penchant for irony and a well-concealed fund of narcissism. His beautiful wife dies young, leaving him a daughter who is neither beautiful nor intelligent. Catherine, the daughter, is pudgy, dull, and docile. Despite being the heiress of a considerable fortune, she reaches her early twenties without attracting a suitor. Then a handsome, clever, stylish stranger, Morris Townsend, comes courting with suspicious alacrity. The Doctor's widowed sister, a resident in the Washington square mansion, fancies herself a romantic and a matchmaker. The Doctor is offended at the prospect that his daughter, awkward embarrassment that she is to his self-esteem, should fall prey to a mercenary wastrel who would thereby carry off the fruits of his professional labors. He forcefully denounces the courtship and threatens 'disinheritance.'
And that's the polished formula for a Victorian novel of manners-and-marriage, isn't it? A novel in the style of Jane Austen or the Brontes, told by an omniscient third-person narrator who often speaks out of the frame directly to the reader! An 'old-fashioned' novel, in short, for Henry james to have written in 1890, especially when everyone knew that he despised the works of Austen! But Henry James was a perverse critter in his literary motives. Washington Square is also a 'historical' novel, set in New York in the 1840s, the very decade of the greatest popularity of Austen-like novels of romance. It's worth noting that James was born in New York City in 1843, making this novel effectively a portrayal of the society of his parents' generation. Nostalgia? Ha! You'll need to read it and look hard for any trace of that!
So it's my thesis - my guess - that James intended Washington Square as a moral rebuttal to the sloppy frippery and psychological unreality of his feminine novelist predecessors. I seldom read literary criticism; I got too much of that in college. If any critic has already stated this same thesis, I'm unaware of it and I can't be accused of plagiarism. But James was wrong to scorn his own brilliance in this novel. The four principal characters -- father, daughter, suitor, meddlesome aunt -- are staggeringly "real" and fully realized psychological portrayals. No one has ever made better reading out of four such unattractive faulty human beings.
Catherine isn't a terribly sympathetic heroine - her dullness, her lack of intelligence, and her refusal to stick up for herself will almost certainly grate with self-actualized women of the 20th century. However, she's much more sympathetic than the uniformly unpleasant cast of characters with whom she interacts in this tale, all of whom see her as little more than a tool to be manipulated for their own purposes. Her aunt uses her as the means by which to fulfill her own melodramatic fantasies of secret trysts and the tragedy of doomed love. Her lover sees her as the path to ready fortune and a life of indolence and ease. Even her own father demonstrates heartbreakingly few signs of genuine affection, viewing his daughter alternatively as an interesting scientific experiment ("how will she react if I apply *this* stressor?") and as a ready affirmation of his own cleverness. The fundamental principle of sarcasm is making the wielder feel superior by belittling another, and in this tale Dr. Sloper wields sarcasm with the same brutal precision he brings to his surgeries.
This is no pat morality tale, however, in which the wicked are punished and virtue is rewarded. Nor is it a thematically simplistic novel, characterized by a resolution in which the main characters change or grow in wisdom. The world isn't as simple as that, and James does us the favor of positing that we know this as well as he does - and that, therefore, we can cope with an ending that is both morally and thematically ambiguous. The novel raises many provoking questions, some of which include: to what extent is a parent justified in preventing their children from making their own mistakes? At what point does principled defiance become merely obstinacy ... or, worse, cruelty? To what extent do we (knowingly and unknowingly) meddle in the affairs of others to achieve our own ends? Can harm and humiliation caused by the betrayal of others be mitigated by a steadfast refusal never to betray oneself? And is this steadfast determination never to betray one's own principles an acceptable substitute for living a life devoid of happiness?
In other words, despite the relative simplicity of plot, this definitely isn't the kind of book you take with you to the beach. However, the novel's moral complexity makes it a worthy read and probably great fodder for book club discussions.
The story of Catherine Sloper's romance with an unworthy suitor is first and foremost a story about another kind of love, the kind that exists between a parent and a child. The romantic interest, Morris Townsend, a fortune-hunting suitor, is mostly a stock figure of a cad. Equally predictable in her actions is Mrs. Penniman, the busybody aunt who stage manages the romance. She is an American Mrs. Bennet who has, perhaps, read one too many romance novels. We know her type. It is the relationship between Catherine and her father, the wealthy physician Dr. Austin Sloper, that is riveting and psychologically complex.
Dr. Sloper, who lost his wife and young son to early, deaths, is a brilliant, witty, cultivated man. His wife was equally accomplished. Together, they represent everything their daughter--stolid, quiet, incurious--is not. In short, she is a disappointment. Of course, she adores her father, while he expresses a more dutiful affection. What happens when she must, painfully, challenge his psychological, emotional, and financial power over her is the struggle that lies at the heart of the novel. Who is the more admirable figure? Is it the father who attempts to save his daughter from a disastrous marriage or the daughter who attempts to make an adult decision (a series of them, actually) that may turn out badly?
If you read this novel once upon a time, to read it again is to truly enjoy and appreciate it.
Three operas were based on the book, a stage version called The Heiress was produced, and a film version based on the play starred Olivia DeHavilland and Montgomery Clift. A later film version, called Washington Square, starred Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ben Chaplin, and Albert Finnery, put a different spin on James's story.