Top critical review
A smart character portrayal, not a love story: 3.5 stars
on December 1, 2001
Henry James' work, Washington Square, is simply a love story with psychological undertones. In it, the main character Catherine Sloper falls deeply in love with a handsome suitor, Morris Townsend. The irony here is that Catherine is a plain girl who possesses a "poor dumb eloquence." As well, besides possessing great wealth of her own, Catherine has an enormous inheritance from her deceased mother. Conversely, Morris is a handsome, debonair suitor whose financial situation may only be described as relative poverty. His charm is enjoyed by almost everyone but Catherine's father, Dr. Austin Sloper. Suspicious of Morris' motives, Dr. Sloper accuses him of marrying Catherine for her fortune and vows to remove all inheritances in her name should the union occur. These circumstances create a bitter relationship between father and daughter, as Catherine must eventually choose between her family and fortune and her lover. In her struggle, however, Catherine gains an admirable strength of character, which is central to the message of the story.
As examined through a brief plot summary, Washington Square contains no clear-cut revelations in its message. Upon careful investigation of the characters, however, it seems that James wants the reader to decide whether Morris' love is true or not. In other words, in terms of the main character's conflict, should Catherine have chosen her father or her lover? In the end, James has Catherine choose neither, thus carefully creating a plot that can be scrutinized from different perspectives. With each of Morris' actions, it is unclear whether he does it out of love for Catherine or out of greed for her money. The author achieves this effect by judicious word use and careful insertions of flaws in the characters of Morris Townsend and Dr. Sloper.
Washington Square was a novel I read for school after having visited Washington Square itself many times. Having said that, although it's an excellent read for literary analysis, it's also a rather dry novel. For a student wanting to complete a literary analysis and enjoy a good book at the same time, this is not good news, thus the 3.5 stars. However, its strong points are the psychological power and the keen insight James has on human nature. Read it for those things, if anything.