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Sloper vs Sloper

April 10, 2012 34 comments

Washington Square by Henry James (1843-1916) Written in 1880.

This is my second reading of Washington Square. It is the last book from  Guy’s virtual Christmas gifts and as Tom from Wuthering Expectations is currently in a James project, I suggested that we read it along. So there will be a review on his blog too and I’m curious to read it.

Catherine Sloper is the daughter of a well-off physician with patients among the good society. Catherine’s mother died when she was an infant and the doctor never remarried. Her aunt Lavinia lives with them, the doctor tolerates her because his sister is a poor widow and as he feels that Catherine needs a feminine presence, although Lavinia isn’t what he thinks is best for his daughter. From the start, Catherine is presented as transparent, uninteresting, the perfect wallflower.

She was not ugly; she had simply a plain, dull, gentle countenance. The most that had ever been said for her was that she had a “nice” face, and, though she was an heiress, no one had ever thought of regarding her as a belle. Her father’s opinion of her moral purity was abundantly justified; she was excellently, imperturbably good; affectionate, docile, obedient, and much addicted to speaking the truth.

She’s already over twenty and has no marriage prospect despite her thirty-thousand dollars income. Comes Morris Townsend. Handsome, talkative, friendly. He courts her, she falls head over heels for him but her father refuses to give his consent to their marriage. For him, Morris Townsend is only a fortune hunter and his daughter is making the wrong choice. He demands that she gives Morris up. But Catherine resists and the novel turns into the silent fight of two equally strong willpowers.

Dr Sloper is a scientist and he can only see life through the eyes of reason. I think, therefore I am could be his motto. He’s a very proud man, confident in his abilities to judge human nature. Once he nailed someone, he won’t change his mind, whatever happens. He decided that his daughter isn’t intelligent and made up his mind. He decided that Morris Townsend is a gold-digger and he won’t change his mind. He’s incredibly conceited about his abilities and terribly stubborn, which is quite an obnoxious combination for a character.

Dr Sloper would have wanted a brilliant girl, either beautiful or witty. Catherine is only average. Instead of accepting it as a loving father would and help her make the best of her abilities, he judges her and undermines her self-esteem with sarcastic remarks. Tenderness has always been absent from Catherine’s life and it impacts her personality. She’s shy and dull because her father smothers her, she never had a chance to bloom, to voice her opinion.

People who expressed themselves roughly called her stolid. But she was irresponsive because she was shy, uncomfortably, painfully shy. This was not always understood, and she sometimes produced an impression of insensibility. In reality she was the softest creature in the world.

She’s afraid of her father and admires him so much that she never questions his opinion. He can only be right. If he says she’s stupid, it is the Truth. Like him, she follows her reason: she lives under his roof, she has to obey.

The first time I read Washington Square, I mostly saw the unhappy love story and the life of a woman destroyed by an inflexible father. My questions were about the Catherine / Morris relationship and the sincerity of Morris’s feelings. This time I was genuinely fascinated by the fight between Catherine and Dr Sloper. It is merciless; nobody wants to surrender and the match can only end with a KO. The doctor sees it from a detached spot, pulls the strings, sees what happens. He looks at the affair, the events as a scientist makes an experiment on insects to prove a theory. He detests Morris Townsend – who doesn’t help his case behaving like he does. He’s sure his daughter is weak-minded and unable to handle a Morris Townsend.

James is an unreliable narrator. He makes fun of Catherine and leads us into thinking that she’s slow and plain. Actually, she’s not that thick. She just doesn’t have a flirtatious or a romantic bone in her. She’s reasonable, never capricious. It’s all a question of cliché. Catherine doesn’t fit into the lovelorn-young-woman cliché. She’s an Elinor, not a Marianne. Actually, thanks to her formidable father, she despises herself:

Love demands certain things as a right; but Catherine had no sense of her rights; she had only a consciousness of immense and unexpected favours.

People around her misjudge her because she’s shy, reserved, doesn’t burst into tears or throw tantrums. They fail to understand how strongly attached to Morris she can be. She doesn’t have the required traits to attract young men, does she? She’s not graceful, good at small talk or expert in choosing the right clothes. She can’t be attractive to a handsome and highly sociable young man like Morris, can she?

But the more the novel progresses, the more she reveals herself. She knows her aunt Lavinia is silly and she doesn’t follow her advice. When she finally breaks free from her father’s spell, she perfectly assesses him.

He’s not very fond of me. (…) I saw it, I felt it, in England, just before he came away. He talked to me one night- -the last night; and then it came over me. You can tell when a person feels that way. I wouldn’t accuse him if he hadn’t made me feel that way. I don’t accuse him; I just tell you that that’s how it is. He can’t help it; we can’t govern our affections. Do I govern mine? mightn’t he say that to me? It’s because he is so fond of my mother, whom we lost so long ago. She was beautiful, and very, very brilliant; he is always thinking of her. I am not at all like her; Aunt Penniman has told me that. Of course, it isn’t my fault; but neither is it his fault.

This was written before Freud and psychoanalysis. But Catherine kills the father here and becomes an adult. Reaching this conclusion gives her the strength to resist and follow her will. She has good sense and James acknowledges that she’d make a sensible and strong wife, which can be attractive too. He explores the impact of education on children. Without the doctor’s judgemental gaze and constant reprobation, Catherine could have been someone else. James will go further on that path when he writes What Maisie Knew in 1897. Again, I’m amazed at the modernity of his vision of education. A little more love and trust from her father and Catherine would have been a totally different person.

Washington Square is a masterpiece. It’s pure essence of great literature. It has everything: a fantastic style, a suspenseful plot and a thought-provoking theme. James is incredibly funny, with sharp little verbal bullets:

Dr Sloper: You have made yourself believe that I can be tired out. This is the most baseless hallucination that ever visited the brain of a genial optimist.

Or

Catherine: The idea of being “clever” in a gondola by moonlight appeared to her to involve elements of which her grasp was not active.

Or

Catherine “You think too much.” [Aunt Lavinia] “I suppose I do; but I can’t help it, my mind is so terribly active. When I give myself, I give myself. I pay the penalty in my headaches, my famous headaches—a perfect circlet of pain! But I carry it as a queen carries her crown.

Or

Dr Sloper. He preferred Mrs. Almond to his sister Lavinia, who had married a poor clergyman, of a sickly constitution and a flowery style of eloquence, and then, at the age of thirty-three, had been left a widow, without children, without fortune—with nothing but the memory of Mr. Penniman’s flowers of speech, a certain vague aroma of which hovered about her own conversation.

A delight, really. Side characters are well drawn too. Aunt Lavinia or Mrs Penninman can be compared to Mrs Bennett for her silly mind and her tendency to approve of romance. To her own consciousness, the flowery fields of her reason had rarely been ravaged by a hostile force. James says.

To be honest, I still haven’t decided if Morris was sincere or not. Probably not. Who has ever seen a handsome man marrying a plain and dull woman for herself only? I have the idea that James leads the reader by the nose and that things aren’t exactly how they appear. I found myself thinking about the film Le goût des autres by Agnès Jaoui. Again.

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