52 pages 1 hour read

Henry James

Washington Square

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1880

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Washington Square is a novel by American author Henry James published in 1880. It is a novel of manners, which turns on individual choices amidst social constraints and expectations, a style typical of James. The novel focuses on the romance between Catherine Sloper, a wealthy young woman in line to inherit even more from her father, and Morris Townsend, a handsome, charming suitor who lacks money and a profession. Catherine’s relationship with her father, Dr. Sloper, is tested by his disapproval of her engagement to Townsend, and she is torn between her sense of filial duty and her love for Townsend. The novel takes as its backdrop mid-19th-century New York City and, particularly, the Washington Square neighborhood. The novel was adapted into a play, The Heiress, in 1947. A 1949 film version of The Heiress was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture.

This study guide uses the 1979 New American Library Signet Classic paperback edition.

Plot Summary

Catherine Sloper is a young woman living on Washington Square in mid-19th-century New York City. She lives with her father, Dr. Sloper, and his sister, Mrs. Penniman. As the novel begins, Catherine attends an engagement party at the home of Dr. Sloper’s other sister, Mrs. Almond. There, she meets Morris Townsend, and the romance between Townsend and Catherine dominates the novel. Townsend is handsome, intelligent, and personable, while Catherine is somewhat shy and withdrawn. Catherine’s mother, who died from complications during childbirth, left Catherine a small fortune. She is also in line to receive a much larger fortune from her father, garnered through his inheritance and successful medical practice.

Townsend’s beauty and ease immediately strike Catherine. She falls in love with him, and their romance progresses quickly as Townsend regularly visits the Washington Square residence to see her. While most people in the novel are charmed by Townsend, Dr. Sloper is not easily won over. He finds Townsend too forward and self-assured, and he questions why Townsend, able-bodied, intelligent, and socially at ease, has no occupation. He also learns that Townsend spent his inheritance traveling and entertaining himself and now lives with his widowed sister, Mrs. Montgomery, and her five children.

Catherine’s aunt, Mrs. Penniman, is smitten with Townsend and champions his cause in courting Catherine. Mrs. Penniman has lived with the Slopers since her husband’s death. The young couple’s romance fires her imagination.

Dr. Sloper is at first more amused than concerned that Catherine has a suitor. He asks that Townsend be invited to dinner to meet and talk with the young man. When the two men talk following dinner, Dr. Sloper recognizes Townsend’s intelligence, handsome physique, and winning social skills. However, Dr. Sloper decides he does not like him because he is so self-assured and forward. In part because the doctor has limited respect for Catherine’s positive qualities—comparing Catherine unfavorably to her beautiful, intelligent mother—he suspects Townsend wishes to marry Catherine for her fortune alone.

When Catherine has been seeing Townsend for just six weeks, she tells Dr. Sloper that she is engaged. Dr. Sloper meets with Townsend and tells him that his lack of a position or fortune makes him a poor candidate for marriage. While Catherine is of age and does not need her father’s consent, Dr. Sloper believes that Catherine is weak, and he tells Townsend that he will strongly suggest to Catherine that she break off the engagement.

Dr. Sloper then meets with Mrs. Montgomery, Townsend’s sister. Though she defends Townsend for having many good qualities, Mrs. Montgomery admits that she has sometimes given Townsend money, though she and her children are poor. Dr. Sloper even offers Mrs. Montgomery money to help her support Townsend, presumably so he will cease wooing Catherine. The interview ends with Mrs. Montgomery telling Dr. Sloper he should not allow Catherine to marry her brother.

Dr. Sloper tells Catherine she would make him happy if she broke off the engagement with Townsend, but Catherine is unwilling to do so. The doctor insinuates that if she marries him, he will cut her off from his fortune, though she would still have access to the smaller fortune left her by her mother. She continues to see Townsend, hoping that her father will come around and approve the engagement. Mrs. Penniman has repeated clandestine meetings with Townsend during which they discuss ways to change Dr. Sloper’s mind. Catherine tells her father that she expects to marry soon.

Dr. Sloper decides to take Catherine on a six-month trip to Europe, hoping that either Catherine will forget Townsend or Townsend will forget Catherine. Mrs. Penniman stays at the Washington Square home while Catherine and her father are in Europe. Townsend is her frequent guest, spending considerable time in Dr. Sloper’s study, smoking his cigars and drinking his wine. Six months into their European travels, Dr. Sloper asks Catherine if she has given Townsend up. She says she has not and that Townsend writes her regularly. His letters are enclosed in letters to her from Mrs. Penniman.

When Dr. Sloper and Catherine return from Europe, she begins seeing Townsend again. Townsend tells Catherine he has recently taken a position as a partner with a merchant. Catherine tells him they should not expect anything from her father but that she is prepared to marry Townsend right away.

Townsend realizes Dr. Sloper will not change his mind. If he marries Catherine, she will not inherit her father’s fortune. Thus, Townsend decides to give Catherine up. He makes an awkward break, telling her he needs to go away on business. She suspects he is breaking off the engagement, and her aunt confirms it.

Catherine does not see Townsend again for many years but does not marry, turning away at least two suitors. Dr. Sloper believes that Catherine and Townsend may have concocted a plan to wait for his death and then marry, so he asks Catherine to promise him this will not happen. She refuses. Dr. Sloper dies, and when his will is opened, Catherine discovers that she will inherit far less than she might have expected. The doctor changed the will to give much of his money to hospitals rather than to Catherine, apparently fearing that Catherine might marry Townsend after his death.

With Mrs. Penniman’s encouragement, Townsend visits Catherine some 20 years after their engagement. Catherine does not wish to see him and tells him he should not have come. When he indicates they are now free to marry, she tells him that his ill-treatment has been too much. She dismisses Townsend from the Washington Square home.