Washington Square (novel)

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Washington Square
James Washington Square cover.JPG
1880 first edition cover
AuthorHenry James
IllustratorGeorge du Maurier
CountryUnited States
PublisherHarper & Brothers
New York City
Publication date
1 December 1880
Media typePrint: hardcover
Pages266 pp

Washington Square is a novel written in 1880 by Henry James about a father's attempts to thwart a romance between his naive daughter and the man he believes wishes to marry her for her money. The novel was famously adapted into a play, The Heiress, which in turn became an Academy Award-winning film starring Olivia de Havilland in the title role.


The plot of the novel is based upon a story told to James by his close friend, British actress Fanny Kemble. An 1879 entry in James' notebooks details an incident where Kemble told James about her brother, who romantically pursued "a dull, commonplace girl...who had a very handsome private fortune."[1][2]


In 1840s New York City, naive, introverted Catherine Sloper lives with her tyrannical father, Dr. Austin Sloper, in Washington Square, a fashionable neighborhood near Greenwich Village. Embittered by the deaths of his wife and son, Dr. Sloper makes Catherine a constant target for verbal and mental abuse. Catherine finds solace in her idealistic aunt, Lavinia Penniman, who came to live with Dr. Sloper when her own husband died. Aunt Penniman puts herself in charge of Catherine's education.

Catherine's cousin Marian gets engaged to a man named Arthur Townsend. At the engagement party, Marian introduces Catherine to Arthur's cousin Morris, who flirts with her throughout the party. Catherine becomes infatuated with Morris and the two begin a romance. Dr. Sloper vehemently opposes the relationship, pointing out that Catherine cannot reasonably expect a man as desirable as Townsend to find her attractive in her own right. Sloper discovers Townsend had squandered his prior inheritance and now lives with his widowed sister. This convinces him that Townsend only wishes to marry Catherine for her money. At dinner, Sloper informs Townsend he abhors him and will not allow the marriage. Townsend insists he will marry Catherine anyway and, with the encouragement of Aunt Penniman, the two plan to elope.

Sloper takes his daughter to Europe for a year, hoping she will forget Townsend, while Aunt Penniman invites Townsend to live in the Sloper home in their absence. While they are in Switzerland, Sloper attempts once more to talk Catherine out of her engagement, but she stands her ground, surprising Sloper with her tenacity. Once the Slopers arrive back in New York, Townsend breaks off his engagement to Catherine with no explanation.

Thoroughly disappointed, Catherine refuses to consider any other romantic prospects. She spends the next several years doing charity work and caring for her aging father. When Dr. Sloper contracts a fatal case of pneumonia, he discloses to Catherine that, as punishment for her relationship with Townsend, he has severely reduced her inheritance.

Aunt Penniman orchestrates one last meeting between Townsend and Catherine. Now older and wiser, she rebuffs his advances and resigns herself to life as a spinster.

List of characters[edit]

  • Austin Sloper - Prestigious American physician.
  • Catherine Sloper - Austin's wife, née Catherine Harrington.
  • Catherine Sloper, Ms - Austin and Catherine's daughter.
  • Lavinia Penniman - Austin's sister.
  • Elizabeth Almond - Austin's sister.
  • Jefferson Almond - Elizabeth's husband, a prosperous merchant.
  • Marian Almond -Jefferson and Elizabeth's daughter.
  • Morris Townsend - Ms. Catherine fiancé, abhorred by Austin.
  • Arthur Townsend - Morris' cousin, Marian's fiancée.
  • Mrs. Montgomery - Morris' widow sister.

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

James himself did not think highly of the novel.[3] He described it as "poorish" and said, "The only good thing in the story is the girl."[2] Edward Wagenknecht noted that it "has certainly attracted more favorable attention."[4] Critic Donald Hall wrote, "Everybody likes Washington Square, even the denigrators of Henry James".[5]


Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted the novel for the stage as The Heiress, originally performed on Broadway in 1947 with Wendy Hiller as Catherine and Basil Rathbone as Dr. Sloper, and revived a number of times since.[6] The play was adapted for film in 1949, and starred Olivia de Havilland as Catherine, Sir Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper, and Montgomery Clift as Morris. William Wyler directed. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four.[7]

In 1972, Mexican director Jose Luis Ibañez made a movie version of this novel titled Victoria (based on his own adaptation with Jorge Font) and starred Julissa, Enrique Alvarez Félix, Guillermo Murray and Rita Macedo. This adaptation takes place in modern day Mexico City and takes liberties with the original text.[8]

Rudolf Nureyev choreographed a full length ballet based on the novel and set to the music of Charles Ives for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1985. The time period was updated to the early 1900s.[9]

In 1992, Filipino director Carlos Siguion-Reyna directed a film adaptation titled Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal (Only You). It starred Maricel Soriano as Adela (Catherine), Richard Gomez as David Javier (Morris Townsend), Eddie Gutierrez as Dr. Sevilla (Dr. Sloper) and Charito Solis as Tia Paula (Aunt Lavinia). The screenplay was written by Raquel Villavicencio.

Polish director Agnieszka Holland made Washington Square in 1997, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, and Ben Chaplin, with Maggie Smith as Mrs. Penniman.

The novel was adapted as an opera by Thomas Pasatieri in 1976.[10]

In 2013, playwright John W. Lowell published a modern gay adaptation called Sheridan Square[11][12]


  1. ^ Singer, Irving. Cinematic Mythmaking. MIT Press. p. 88.
  2. ^ a b Simpson, Mona (3 June 2013). "Can She Be Loved? On "Washington Square"". The New Yorker. Conde Nast.
  3. ^ A Henry James Encyclopedia by Robert Gale, Greenwood Press 1989, ISBN 0-313-25846-5, p. 797.
  4. ^ The Novels of Henry James by , Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. 1983, ISBN 0-8044-2959-6, pp. 68–75.
  5. ^ Washington Square, Signet Classics 1964, afterword by Donald Hall, p. 181
  6. ^ "The Heiress – Broadway Play – Original | IBDB". www.ibdb.com. Retrieved 13 April 2022.
  7. ^ "The Heiress - Trailer - Showtimes - Cast - Movies - New York Times". 23 November 2007. Archived from the original on 23 November 2007. Retrieved 13 April 2022.
  8. ^ Historia documental del cine mexicano (Volume 15: 1970–1971) by Emilio García Riera, Universidad de Guadalajara, 1992, pp. 210–211.
  9. ^ "Washington square - Nureyev's choreography".
  10. ^ Reviews from Theodore Presser[dead link]
  11. ^ RVA Staff, "Weekend Events 1/25/13 – Live music, dancing, and plays". RVA Magazine. 25 January 2013.[dead link]
  12. ^ Richard Dodds, State-censored sex drives, Bay Area Reporter, 17 April 2014[dead link]

External links[edit]