Washington Square (novel)

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Washington Square
James Washington Square cover.JPG
1880 first edition cover
Author Henry James
Illustrator George Du Maurier
Country United States
Language English
Genre Novel
Publisher Harper & Brothers
New York City
Publication date
1 December 1880
Media type Print: hardcover
Pages 266 pp
OCLC 9746895

Washington Square is a short novel by Henry James. Originally published in 1880 as a serial in Cornhill Magazine and Harper's New Monthly Magazine, it is a structurally simple tragicomedy that recounts the conflict between a dull but sweet daughter and her brilliant, unemotional father. The plot of the novel is based upon a true story told to James by his close friend, British actress Fanny Kemble.[1] The book is often compared with Jane Austen's work for the clarity and grace of its prose and its intense focus on family relationships. James was not a great fan of Washington Square itself. He tried to read it over for inclusion in the New York Edition of his fiction (1907–1909) but found that he could not, and the novel was not included. Other readers, though, have sufficiently enjoyed the book to make it one of the more popular works of the Jamesian canon.

Plot summary[edit]

Dr. Austin Sloper, a wealthy and highly successful physician, lives in Washington Square, New York, with his daughter Catherine. Catherine is a sweet-natured young woman who is a great disappointment to her father, being physically plain and, he believes, dull in terms of personality and intellect. His sister, Lavinia Penniman, a meddlesome woman with a weakness for romance and melodrama, is the only other member of the doctor's household.

One day, Catherine meets the charming Morris Townsend at a party and is powerfully drawn to him. Townsend courts Catherine. Sloper strongly disapproves, believing Townsend to be a 'selfish idler' who is after Catherine's money alone. Penniman, however, regards the situation as romantic, and continually meddles in an attempt to bring the two together.

When Townsend and Catherine announce their engagement, Sloper investigates Townsend's background, and believes him to be a parasitic spendthrift. Sloper forbids his daughter to marry Townsend, telling her that he will disinherit her if she does. Sloper largely intends this threat as a stratagem to flush Townsend out: if Townsend responds by breaking off the engagement, not only will Sloper have succeeded in preventing the marriage, but his assessment of Townsend's character will also be proven correct. Townsend, however, suspects that Sloper is bluffing, and that he will not leave his daughter penniless — indeed this question is left unanswered even to the reader. Townsend therefore continues the engagement, but repeatedly defers scheduling the wedding.

Catherine too continues the engagement, and this represents the first time that she has stood against her father's wishes. Arrogantly certain of getting his way eventually, Sloper finds an urbane entertainment in the situation, simultaneously pitying his daughter and yet treating the circumstances as a sport. Meanwhile, Penniman continues to undermine Sloper's efforts to keep the two apart.


The four principal characters are Catherine, Dr. Sloper, Mrs. Penniman, and Morris Townsend. Dr. Sloper's sister, Mrs. Almond, and Townsend's sister, Mrs. Montgomery, are significant but secondary.

Catherine Sloper, often referred to by the narrator as "poor Catherine", is Dr. Sloper's only surviving child; her brother died at the age of three, and her mother succumbed to complications of childbirth a week after Catherine was born. She is sweet-natured and honest; however, she is also shy, plain, and not considered 'clever'. This makes her a great disappointment to her father. She has inherited an annual income of $10,000 from her late mother's estate and stands to inherit an additional $20,000, annually, from her father's. ($30,000 a year in 1880 would be equivalent to between $600,000 and $1.2 million a year in the U.S. currency of the early twenty-first century.)

Dr. Austin Sloper, a man in his early fifties, has succeeded brilliantly in his profession. He has never recovered from the death of his wife, a beautiful and vivacious woman who died shortly after Catherine's birth. Dr. Sloper is clever, experienced, perceptive, satirical, and almost always certain he is right. He often speaks ironically to Catherine who, having no way to retaliate, loves him anyway. She is also afraid of him, and defying his disapproval of Morris is a fearful step.

Lavinia Penniman, Sloper's childless, long-widowed sister, provides comic relief derived from her unrealistic romantic scheming, wild hyperbole, and duplicity. She takes a keen vicarious interest in Catherine's courtship, and later becomes infatuated with Morris as a tyrannical son, whose love affairs are of the greatest interest. She manipulates both Catherine and Morris, trying to shape their relationship into a romantic melodrama in which she plays a leading role; almost invariably, however, she makes matters worse.

Morris Townsend, a tall, handsome man of about thirty, has squandered a small inheritance traveling the world and now lives with his sister. He is a typical fortune-hunter, and Dr. Sloper immediately suspects him of this. James also gives Townsend some intelligence and grace. As a result, Catherine is unable to resist his attentions. James describes Townsend as a "statue", an "apparition", and "a knight in a poem".

Elizabeth Almond, Sloper's other sister, is sensible and clever, and has a large, blooming family. Sloper frequently confides in her about Catherine's entanglement with Morris, and his sarcastic view of the situation contrasts with hers, which is more sympathetic.

Marian Almond, Mrs Almond's daughter, is an important contrast to Catherine. Marian is the conventional, flirtatious and confident young woman that Catherine is not. She marries "punctually".

Mrs. Montgomery is a widow living in genteel poverty with her five children. Dr. Sloper pays a call on her so that they can discuss her brother, Morris. He persuades Mrs. Montgomery to admit that Morris takes money from her, returns very little, and makes her suffer.


The novel is told from a third-person omniscient point of view, although we know nothing about the narrator. The narrator often offers his comments directly to the reader.

The novella begins at a distance from the characters, describing the background of the Sloper family. It then recounts in detail the story of Catherine's romance with Morris Townsend. When Morris jilts her, the focus shifts back to a long view. As James puts it: "Our story has hitherto moved with very short steps, but as it approaches its termination it must take a long stride." The final few chapters are taken once more in short steps, ending with the striking vignette of Catherine's refusal of Morris.

Major themes[edit]

The bitterest irony in the story is that Dr. Sloper, a brilliant and successful physician, is exactly right about Morris Townsend, and yet he is cruel to his defenseless and loving daughter. If the doctor had been incorrect in his appraisal of the worthless Townsend, he would be only a stock villain. As it is, the doctor's head functions perfectly but his heart has grown cold after the death of his beautiful and gifted wife.

Catherine gradually grows throughout the story, ultimately gaining the ability to judge her situation accurately. As James puts it: "From her point of view the great facts of her career were that Morris Townsend had trifled with her affection, and that her father had broken its spring. Nothing could ever alter these facts; they were always there, like her name, her age, her plain face. Nothing could ever undo the wrong or cure the pain that Morris had inflicted on her, and nothing could ever make her feel towards her father as she felt in her younger years." Catherine will never be brilliant, but she learns to be clear-sighted.

Literary significance & criticism[edit]

"Everybody likes Washington Square, even the denigrators of Henry James", wrote critic Donald Hall,[2] and most other commentators have echoed the sentiment. Although James himself regarded the novel with near contempt, readers have enjoyed its linear narrative technique, its straightforward prose (far removed from the convoluted language of James's later career), and the sharply etched portraits of the four main characters. Even the rusty plot revolving around "the will" has charmed many critics with its old-fashioned simplicity.[3]

Catherine's slow but unmistakable development into independence and wisdom is a notable success for James and has been much appreciated by critics and readers in general.[4]

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations[edit]

Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted the novel for a very successful play, 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.

The play was adapted for film in 1949, and starred Olivia de Havilland as Catherine, Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper, and Montgomery Clift as Morris. William Wyler directed. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four. Both play and movie hewed closely to the novel and cribbed many of the best lines directly from James' dialogue. However, the Goetz version does make a few changes to the story and to the character of Catherine, making her angry enough to refuse to see her father on his deathbed, and clever enough to devise a ruse to revenge herself on Morris.

In 1972 Mexican director Jose Luis Ibañez made a movie version of this novel called Victoria (based on his own adaptation with Jorge Font) and starred Julissa, Enrique Alvarez Félix, Guillermo Murray and Rita Macedo. However this film got moderate reviews because such adaptation takes place in a modern Mexico City, in addition to many other liberties with the original text.[5]

Polish director Agnieszka Holland made another major movie version in 1997, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, and Ben Chaplin, with Maggie Smith as Mrs. Penniman. While this film also takes some liberties with the original text, it is in the main a more faithful adaptation.

The novel was adapted as an opera by Thomas Pasatieri in 1976.[6]


  1. ^ 1879 entry in James' notebooks
  2. ^ Washington Square, Signet Classics 1964, afterword by Donald Hall, p. 181
  3. ^ The Novels of Henry James by Edward Wagenknecht, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. 1983, ISBN 0-8044-2959-6, pp. 68-75. Wagenknecht criticizes some aspects of the novel but concedes that it "has certainly attracted more favorable attention" (possibly due, he speculates, to the successful Broadway and film versions). He offers several citations of positive critical views in his footnotes.
  4. ^ A Henry James Encyclopedia by Robert Gale, Greenwood Press 1989, ISBN 0-313-25846-5, pp. 797-8. Gale writes: "James always downgraded this fine, easily read novel, even though in it he brilliantly characterizes the two Slopers." This is typical of critical praise for James' portrayal of the book's central figures. The story's main contexts are based around the narrow upper class society in which the novel is set. Also wealth and respectability are key contexts very relevant to the development and outcome of the novel. The issue of money is especially key as it was said money was needed to "make a mark in society". Ironically Catherine has money but fails to do this. Money is also a key issue in relation to Morris and his greed for wealth which becomes apparent.
  5. ^ Historia documental del cine mexicano (Volume 15: 1970-1971) by Emilio García Riera, Universidad de Guadalajara, 1992, pp. 210-211.
  6. ^ Reviews from Theodore Presser

External links[edit]