Henry James - Washington Square, review

I. Theme

Social conventions of the 19th century which prevents to know the real love and open place to endless quarrels inside family which end up in personal tragedy.


II. Subject

Morality, money and love


III. Plot and structure

  1. Dr. Sloper, after the death of his wife brings up his only daughter, Catherine, with the help of his sister Mrs. Lavinia Penniman (he is not glad to see her as a tutor but finally agrees)

  2. Catherine falls deeply in love with Morris Townsend, whom her father suspects and hates

  3. Young couple gets engaged and they plan marriage against the will of Catherine’s father, who when discovers that he cannot get rid of Morris develops a trick, six-month journey to Europe with Catherine.

  4. When they come back, Catherine is much more mature and eager to get married than before despite the fact that she would be disinherited.

  5. Morris doesn’t like Catherine’s self-assertion, finds out his failure to get her money, and leaves her. Then she understands what he really wanted, she struggles with her father who suspects her of marrying Morris after his death.

  6. As time passes she refuses to get married and is devoted to charity, her father dies

  7. On return of Morris she expresses him that there is nothing left to their partnership.

Structure of the narrative is not completely in chronological order, there are numerous predictions, returns and linkings to events which happened in the past.


Conflict main conflict between two persons Catherine and Morris who wants to deceive her. She believes him too much and he tells her what he wants. However, in broader sense there is depicted conflict inside higher society and its morality. There is conflict between father and daughter (he is neither satisfied with her appearance nor her behaviour), father of the daughter and her lover (he chooses the right husband for his only child), father of the daughter and her tutor (how to educate her).

  1. Exposition – how everything began. Dr. Sloper’s marriage, his misery, death of his, first child, then wife and development of Catherine into robust, not clever child. Invitation of his sister Mrs. Lavinia Penniman.

  2. Complication – at Mrs. Almond’s party, Catherine was told something about Morris Townsend, with whom she later falls in love thanks to aunt Lavinia. She believes him every word and is fascinated by his appearance and behaviour. However, her father does not like him and when he hears about their engagement he wants his daughter to give him up and seeks for tools how to do it (Mrs Montgomery – offering her money, disinheritance of his daughter, trip to Europe). Morris promises to marry Catherine even if she is disinherited, but counts how much he would lose if she were disinherited. He considers results: unattractive woman, poor (only 10.000 $ a year). This is the reason for his enormous patience to wait until their return from Europe and better will of Dr. Sloper.

  3. Crises – when Dr. Sloper discover that Catherine won’t give Morris up he finds a solution to take her for six months trip to Europe which is finally extended for another six months. During this trip, Catherine is threatened by her father, when he sees that her love towards Morris has not change. She starts to hate him. Now she wants to marry as soon as possible.

  4. Climax – Morris is surprised by Catherine’s will to marry against her father’s will. Now he thinks of separation, because he sees that heritage is out. Mrs Penniman also wants to help Morris to get the money from her brother in order to save the marriage (Lavinia does’t also see he is a fortune seeker). He works out a tale for Catherine of travelling to New Orleans without her (because of yellow fever) but it does not work, she doesn’t believe him. He leaves her, and she believes he would come back, but he didn’t. Aunt Lavinia thinks he has put their marriage off.

  5. Resolution – As years passed she got older, refused proposals for marriage, Catherine’s father became ill and died of congestion of lungs, then after years aunt Lavinia arranges meeting with Morris Townsend who wanted to see Catherine again and resume their friendship. She refuses because he had betrayed her. Only aunt Lavinia hadn’t realized the end, she thought their romance could continue but also Morris was exhausted.


IV. Setting

New York, Washington square, predominantly artificial scenery rooms, parlours, only during the Doctor’s trip in Europe natural scenery is described, Alps. Setting represents reality of higher society.


V. Characters

Main characters:

Catherine Sloper – When she was a child she found hobby in dressing herself. She expected fortune. Using expensive clothes she looked older than she was. Catherine looks dull and is rather uneducated, because her aunt Lavinia does not teach her anything useful in life. She wants to be good girl who obeys orders of her father. Therefore she is indecisive and easy victim for Morris. However, Catherine undergoes change in three stages from:

  1. A dull girl who is easy to manage and everyone can do with her what they want (Lavinia advices Morris to postpone the marriage because she would do anything for him). She is about twenty

  2. Then she realized herself, she reached maturity and understood that she must leave her father because he is not fond of her (when he threatened her in Alps). At this point she also understood that Morris was mistake and betrayed her senses.

  3. Finally she invented that her happiness stays in service for others, work and solitude. She is over forty.

Dr. Austin Sloper – A physician, whose learning and skill were in balance. He was honest man about fifty years of age with sense for philosophy. Flat character, he only uses his experience and finally is right with estimation of Morris but he also lost daughter so it is hard to say who he really is. He thinks he knows people very well from his thirty-year practice and believes that he is always right in his estimations. He represents old-fashioned father who takes care of his daughter and her happiness regardless what she thinks or feels. Before he died he altered his will because she didn’t promised him not to marry Morris.

Mr. Morris Townsend – Flat character. Man about thirty who used to serve in navy, who is of a lower rank in his family. He only pretended his love towards Catherine and played a game with Lavinia and others to hit the aim, to get the money (his speech about children). As Catherine departs he becomes regular visitor of Washington Square and reveals his expensive style of life. He uses, without permission, Dr. Sloper’s study.

Mrs. Lavinia Penniman – flat character, sister of Dr. Sloper. She has enormous imagination and phantasy. She is responsible for negotiations between Catherine and Morris


Minor characters:  flat characters

Catherine Harrington – wife of Dr. Sloper who had died three years later when she gave birth to Catherine

Mrs Elizabeth Almond – second sister of Dr. Sloper, she disagrees with his cruelty towards Catherine, but is suspicious of Morris. She also doesn’t like foolish behaviour of her sister Lavinia.

Mr. Arthur Townsend – future husband of Marian, cousin of Morris

Marian Almond – future wife of Arthur, daughter of Elizabeth.

Mrs. Montgomery – sister of Morris Townsend, small, plump. She was asked by Dr. Sloper to cancel relationship between Morris and Catherine. (money were offered)

Mr. Macalister – widower with three little girls wanted to marry Catherine

John Ludlow – a clever young lawyer, one year younger than Catherine, also refused after making a proposal


VI. Point of view

First person (“I”), second person – narrator tells a listener (p. 6 I’m describing…)


VII. Style

American English – favour. diction - middle / neutral everyday English. Author uses a special style, he specializes onto one problem of the family, which was settled by Dr. Sloper and nothing else exists. I as a reader am not able to perceive anything else from feelings about reactions on Dr. Sloper’s wishes.


VIII. Tone

Tone of the novel varies according to characters.

Catherine conveys attitudes of good will and simplicity

Morris represents, especially, verbal irony – “poor father will be disappointed” p. 115

Dr. Sloper represents attitude of villain who hates his daughter - sarcasm – “I will present her with pair of spectacles” but also others. It looks like he alone was right with everything. (symbol of old society)


IX. Symbolism, allegory

Doctor – symbol of health, wisdom

Cigar – cultural symbol – of rich people and successful

Card – business if someone is successful

Allegory p. 113 – “If I live with you, I ought to obey you.” – old society


X. Genre (type)

I would say it is a family novel describing its drama about unsatisfied father with his daughter and her lover and broken relationship between lovers.


XI. Own interpretation

In my opinion this novel reveals typical life of the higher society at the end of the 19th century. Dr. Sloper represents typical family authority that consists of all rights to choose the best for his only child. On the other hand Catherine as a character represents old fashioned child (woman) without her own opinion and senses. In the contrary to her passivity there is Mrs. Penniman who invents different combinations for their interaction and thus opens space for a young man who thinks could profit from the triangle of stern father, dull daughter and foolish old tutor (Mrs. Penniman). I think the novel is good example that we should never undervalue anyone and an excellent example of Hegels dialectical method (thesis –antithesis – synthesis) applied into a development of Catherine’s spirit in which initial phase is represented by dullness of Catherine (self-being). When Morris Townsend comes to scene, makes her proposal and her father takes her out to Europe her spirit comes to stage of self-alienation and finally, when she realizes that Morris deceived her and her father cares more for money than about her, her spirit reaches stage of self consciousness and decides to be a spinster devoted to her work and solitude.


The American novel, essays on Washington square


Since the Civil War there are constant thoughts that America can provide the same fiction as Europe, regarding the extent of its epic dimensions. However, opinions to this are different among American writers. One group represents typical American patriotism including novelists such as Howell, who built novel on what he saw before him, generally on action and argument declaring that imagination begets imagination. Then Mark Twain wrote as if America was everything in the world, using tools of instinct in the matter.

On the opposite side to these novelists there stands Henry James who considered America as outlying region of the European, particularly to Anglo-Saxon civilisation. He was devoted to this language and customs that were strengthened by the slow entering of America in the World War.


Henry James (1843 – 1916), American novelist, playwright, essayist and critic. Although he was born in New York, his father, Henry James, Sr., a famous metaphysician and theologian didn’t allow anybody to change original customs of his son. Henry was educated by different teachers among whole Europe (Geneva, London, Paris etc), he read British magazines and his father used to invited eminent Europeans to their home, while they were in the United States. Another occasion that pushed him step forward from American patriotism was not joining army and going to Harvard to Law School during the Civil War. He became contributor to the Nation and the North American, but this did not satisfy him. He was attracted by the European countries and finally after several longer visits in Europe he returned England and settled in London in 1876 for the rest of his life.


Essays on Washington square


Cynde Reese – Washington Square considered as a psychological novel, the action takes place in the minds of the characters. According to Gargano early naiveté can represent empty mind but also later strong emotions of the main character. The central goal for the main characters is secretly striving how it falls below their lofty expectations.


Gretchen Anthony – According to James W. Gargano, Washington Square revolves around the emotional and spiritual development of Catherine Sloper. But he shifts the attention from ethical efforts of Dr Sloper on the process of self-realisation of Catherine. In the beginning Catherine is innocent, to contrast her change which she undergoes as soon as she meets Morris Townsend. Meeting Morris shifts Catherine further to maturity in her thinking and feeling. This also affects her inner evolution she becomes more sophisticated, separate and autonomous while other main characters stay in their predictable ways.

There is also expressed question about Catherine’s dullness when she did not discover real face of Morris. Catherine was created as a kind of spiritual wonder, while Mrs. Penniman as her counterpart an irresponsible person propagating romantic phantasy. Catherine was meant as a kind of sacred expression of faith and poetry.