Washington Square Summary

Henry James

Washington Square

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Washington Square Summary

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The novella tells the story of the Sloper family from the Washington Square neighborhood of Manhattan in the mid-nineteenth century. Dr. Austin Sloper is a respected physician. His wife, Catherine, gives birth to a son, but the child sadly dies a few days later. Two years after that, Catherine gives birth to a daughter. The labor is difficult and the mother dies. The daughter is named Catherine in memory of her, and this Catherine becomes the main character of the story.

Catherine is not well-loved by her father. He sees her as a disappointment in a number of ways. First, she is not the son that he lost. She is not as beautiful as her mother, nor does she seem as bright as her father. Dr. Sloper has two sisters. His favorite, Elizabeth, has married a merchant. Elizabeth is sensible and nice, though when she offers Dr. Sloper advice, he does not heed it. Dr. Sloper’s other sister, Lavinia, is a widow who was once married to a poor member of the clergy. When Catherine is a few years old, her Aunt Lavinia comes to live with them. Dr. Sloper hopes she’ll be an acceptable surrogate mother for Catherine.

The book moves forward quickly to Catherine’s late adolescence and her young adulthood. Dr. Sloper remains successful in his career, but he also remains disappointed in Catherine’s lack of exceptionalism. Dr. Sloper’s disinterest in his daughter hampers Catherine’s development. Because he expects so little from his daughter, Dr. Sloper offers little inspiration for Catherine to succeed.

At the engagement party for one of her cousins, Catherine meets Morris Townsend. He is good-looking, and smooth-talking. He’s been away for quite a while, traveling the world, which makes him an outsider in New York society.

Morris speaks well of Catherine to her Aunt Lavinia. This inspires her to act as the go-between for the two young people. Morris makes numerous visits to the Sloper home, catching the attention of Dr. Sloper. Dr. Sloper sees Morris as a lazy fake, a charmer who is targeting Catherine as a way to access her fortune.

Aunt Lavinia, however, is hard at work promoting their romance, and as a result, Catherine comes to believe that Morris truly loves her. Morris is kind to Catherine, though his primary motivation for the relationship remains focused on her fortune. Morris treats her far better than Catherine’s father ever did, and as a result, Dr. Sloper is unsuccessful in his efforts to pry apart their relationship.

Dr. Sloper threatens to disown Catherine if she continues this relationship, thus taking away a significant portion of her inheritance. Morris, of course, is troubled by this threat. Catherine remains steadfast, however, so Dr. Sloper asks her to join him on a trip to Europe in the hopes that the time away from Morris will lessen Catherine’s feelings for him. Lavinia, in the meantime, grows her own social circle. Morris is a frequent guest. Morris should have been using this time to secure a job, but instead he lies about obtaining a position at a commodities firm. Catherine is encouraged by this and looks forward to getting married.

Morris, however, backs out of the marriage on account of Catherine’s financial losses. He leaves town, and Catherine’s heart breaks. Dr. Sloper comes to believe that Catherine will simply marry Morris after his death, and insists that she promise this won’t happen. With Dr. Sloper near death, Catherine refuses. Dr. Sloper dies, leaving most of his money to charity.

A few years later, Morris returns to learn that Catherine has never married. While Morris has assumed that Catherine has remained in love with him, this proves untrue. Catherine sends him away, and remains content living the life of a spinster, finding fulfillment in her interests and hobbies.

The novella’s main interest is in exploring the concept of family, and the ways we hurt members of our family whom we are supposed to love. In Washington Square, betrayal takes many forms: unfulfilled expectations, broken promises, indifference, abandonment.

These betrayals are sometimes real, and at other times, they are merely perceived. In particular, the character of Dr. Sloper sees betrayal everywhere he looks, when in fact, his perception is wrong. Dr. Sloper considers the death of his son, the birth of a daughter, and the loss of his wife in childbirth to be betrayals. This is obviously inaccurate, but he’s incapable of seeing his life any other way. He then projects his fears of further betrayal onto his daughter instead of showing her the love a father should provide in a situation such as theirs. In effect, then, Dr. Sloper betrays his daughter in the way he denies Catherine the upbringing she sought and deserved.

Although James himself was not a fan of Washington Square, it has proven to be one of his most popular works. The book has been adapted for stage and screen a number of times, and critics write with admiration of Catherine’s character development during the course of the story.