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Review: Washington Square, by Henry James


Pages: 183
Original date of publication: 1880
My edition: 2010 (Oxford World’s Classics)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Amazon, September 2012

Published in 1880, Washington Square looks back to an earlier period of New York City’s history, when upper-crust society lived at or adjacent to Washington Square, before society eventually migrated uptown. Set in the first half of the nineteenth century and based on a story that was once told to Henry James, this novel tells the story of Catherine Sloper the daughter of a respected physician and the heiress to a fortune of $10,000. One evening she meets Morris Townsend, a young man of whom Dr. Sloper is immediately suspicious, for wanting to marry Catherine for her money. Although Dr. Sloper forbids his daughter to marry or even see Mr. Townsend, as the risk of her losing her fortune, she does so anyways, with the help of her aunt, Mrs. Penniman.

Washington Square in the early nineteenth century wasn’t so much a location as it was an address, a way of life. The heyday of Washington Square was in the 1840s, although many people were starting to move further uptown. Henry James’s perspective is from the later part of that century, when New York’s high society had already moved northwards in Manhattan, so this novel highlights the differences that 50 years or so have wrought. There are often comparisons between the way things are now (in the 1880s) and the way things were before the advent of the Civil War. The house in Washington Square represents a comfortable, consistent way of life valued by nearly everyone in the novel but Catherine, who seeks a way out through marriage.

Washington Square is based upon a story that was told to Henry James by the actress Fanny Kemble. James is rather cruel to Catherine; she is described as a plain, unintelligent girl. We are never given a clear picture of her thought process. We get much more from the tyrannical Dr. Sloper, a man who can deliver “a terribly incisive look—a look so like a surgeon’s lancet.” He is never afraid to say exactly what he thinks, which makes him an easier character to understand and empathize with. Henry James doesn’t describe his characters or their actions in simple adjectives; rather, he uses similes and analogies to describe how his characters think and feel.

Morris Townsend is harder to understand; seen though the eyes of Catherine, our idea of him is hardly objective. We don’t get any kind of inner monologue from him at first, so it’s hard to judge him exactly. But the more the book goes on and the more we are allowed to view his thoughts, the more we start to see Townsend from Dr. Sloper’s point of view. It’s very interesting to see how Henry James reveals nuances of character the way he does. In all, all of the characters are portrayed very well.

Comments

I had an English professor in college who thought the sun rose and set in Henry James. He had us read "The Golden Bowl" and he seriously treated it like a bible. It so totally turned me off Henry James that I've never picked up another one of his books. I really should give him another chance!
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