First appearing as a serial in Cornhill Magazine in 1880, Washington Square focuses on the strained relationship between father and daughter, which is instigated as a result of opposing personalities,...
First appearing as a serial in Cornhill Magazine in 1880, Washington Square focuses on the strained relationship between father and daughter, which is instigated as a result of opposing personalities, viewpoints, and lack of affection. At the same time, James presents an insidious father, who would rather sacrifice his daughter’s happiness and condemn her to a lifetime of misery, simply to prove the accuracy of his prediction. Essentially a tragicomedy, the novel focuses on themes including family, deception, cruelty, manipulation, and opposed principles.
Told in a third-person omniscient point of view, the tale begins with the introduction of Dr. Austin Sloper and his family background, which proves to be quite depressing from the start, as he has lost both his wife and son. Nevertheless, Sloper is an eminent and wealthy physician who lives in Washington Square, New York, together with his daughter Catherine and widowed sister, Lavinia Penniman. Disappointed by the fact that Catherine has not inherited any of the noteworthy traits from neither himself nor his late wife, he considers her to have a plain appearance, a dull personality, and a shortage of intellect. On the other hand, Catherine is portrayed as a shy, compliant, and sympathetic young woman, who hardly ever stands her ground. The already fragile relationship between father and daughter is further tested when Catherine becomes acquainted with Morris Townsend at a party. After their acquaintance, Morris reveals his interest in Catherine to her melodramatic aunt Lavinia, who swiftly employs her meddling skills and takes the role of middleman. Consequently, Catherine becomes drawn to the charming suitor and readily accepts his proposal. However, the news is not taken well by her critical father, who believes Morris’s only incentive is purely economic. Troubled by her father’s disapproval, Catherine is left with no choice but to go against his wishes and follow her heart. Confronted by quite the dilemma, the young heroine is continuously victim to emotional and psychological manipulation, as she is forced to stand against her harshest critic, while also determining the legitimacy of her fiancé’s intentions. In addition, the novel confirms James’ proficiency as a writer, as he effectively applies a realistic illustration of the characters by the means of cleverly constructed dialogue that reflects their true nature. An enthralling tale marked by James’ unique style, Washington Square serves as a great introduction to his other works.