Washington Square


The shy and sweet daughter of a well-to-do physician, Catherine Sloper seems destined for lifelong spinsterhood until the sudden appearance of a dashing suitor who proposes marriage.

Her adored father suspects the would-be fiancé of fortune-hunting and threatens her with disinheritance, forcing Catherine to choose between lover and father.

~ Synopsis from Amazon

The book starts with an introduction to New York physician Dr. Sloper and his only daughter Catherine. He loses his wife suddenly after the birth of Catherine, who grows up to be a not particularly clever nor beautiful girl (certainly not as clever and beautiful as her mother). Catherine, painfully shy, is a dutiful, but perhaps dull, daughter who is unable to win her father’s love or respect.

He in fact has a very low opinion of her. He muses to himself:

When Catherine is about seventeen, he said to himself, Lavinia [her aunt] will try and persuade her that some young man with a moustache is in love with her. It will be quite untrue; no young man, with a moustache or without, will ever be in love with Catherine.

When handsome but impoverished Morris Townsend starts courting her, Dr. Sloper is dead-sure that he is hell-bent on marrying her for her fortune, and that Townsend will make the worst sort of husband. He withholds his consent and makes sure that Townsend knows that if they marry, they will not get any money from him.

The battle of wills that follows next forms the crux of the story.

My Thoughts (With Spoilers)

This is a very short character-driven novel. The style is very intimate, with only four characters of any note. There’s Dr.Sloper who’s intelligent, insightful, but unloving. His daughter Catherine is a sweet girl, but a bit of a ninny unable to see the truth about her suitor. Morris Townsend is fun, charming, good-looking, and has a high enough opinion of himself that he will not marry a plain girl like Catherine unless there is a significant financial advantage to him. Last but not the least is Catherine’s widowed aunt Lavinia who is romantic and foolish, and half in love with Morris Townsend herself and half envies Catherine’s luck in snagging him. She muses on their romance thus:

That’s the sort of husband I should have had!

The clash between all these characters is brought out nicely, even if a bit simplistically. While the story is not much, the writing is an absolute joy to read, and there was not a moment of boredom. I believe Washington Square is considered one of Henry James’ lesser works; I find that rather hard to believe.

I am not sure that if the book had the effect on me that James intended though. For one, now that I am a momma, I who might have sympathized with Catherine if I had read this book earlier now found myself sympathizing with Dr.Sloper.

Would I let my daughter behave like a ninny mooning over an unworthy young man, who doesn’t even love her? I don’t think so. I may not be as harsh as Dr. Sloper, but I am sure that I would definitely let loose my sarcastic side quite a bit. He is a very harsh and distant father though, but keeping in mind the standards of the time, maybe not a very unusual one? I don’t know but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I can’t say the same for Morris Townsend or Catherine’s silly but still calculating aunt. The moment Townsend learns that there is no hope of getting Catherine’s father’s money, he ditches her in the most callous way imaginable, even involving her aunt Lavinia in the matter, breaking Catherine’s heart and humiliating her very badly.

Catherine’s aunt’s behavior is even more inexcusable. She is an elderly woman, someone who I expected would have more brains than to encourage an unsuitable man’s attentions to her niece. Her role as duenna is almost a joke.

So, I don’t know what to think. Catherine’s father turns out to be correct in his estimation of the man his daughter loves, but was being correct enough? He makes her see the truth. Is that love or cruelty? Would it have been better for Catherine to be disillusioned gradually after marriage?

I don’t know but it did make me think that this story is so universal. It’s very simple and straight-forward, very easy to read, very easy to decode everybody’s characters but in spite of the apparent simplicity, James has added so much fodder for thought, no wonder, it’s still such an incredibly popular classic. It’s been made into movies a couple of times, and I think there’s even been a dramatic production of it.

Overall, incredibly readable, and in spite of the smallness of the story, incredibly interesting and thought-provoking. I enjoyed it a lot.

I read this book as part of my initiative to read more Classics for The Classics Club.

You can also purchase a copy of this book from Amazon

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  • proudindians

    I am a book buff and is very fond of reading Classic novels. I read this book long back, perhaps when I was in school from my mom’s collection and after reading your review, all the characters have come to my mind as a flashback. Thank you for taking me down my memory lane.

  • It is always so interesting to look at a book at different points in one’s life. A monolithic “this is the way it is” reviewing style does not take this into account. Washington Square is on my Classics Club list too — I haven’t much liked Henry James so far but this might change my mind.

  • Wanton Ruminating

    I understand exactly when you talk about wondering whether you would have had different views if you had read this book earlier. Time changes so many perceptions. I think the review is spot on – I can almost see all the characters as you describe them 🙂

    • Nishita

      @Wanton Ruminating: I know if I was a teenager reading this book, I would have been more sympathetic towards Catherine. I guess now being older and wiser (hopefully), I could understand Dr.Sloper’s irritation with his daughter’s insistence on marrying an unsuitable person.

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