Sloper vs Sloper

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.


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


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.


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.

  1. April 10, 2012 at 4:14 am

    I’m an Agnes Jaoui fan. I think she’s one of the best French directors out there at the moment.

    Re-reading can be handy, can’t it, as see things we didn’t the first time around. I don’t think Morris was sincere.


    • April 10, 2012 at 9:05 pm

      You’re a more frequent re-reader than I am. For classics, I think it can be very handy. Thanks to you, without the nudge, I don’t think I would have re-read it.

      I still have a doubt about Morris.
      First, like Sarah mentions, the narration shifts as the novel progresses and we are led to change our vision of Catherine. We know Morris has been very wild and he claims he’s past it and wants to settle. Catherine is an anchor, her character is reliable.
      Second, Morris never marries; usually fortune hunters just change of prey when they realize their scheme won’t work. With his amiable character, I don’t see why he couldn’t have seduced another heiress.


      • April 10, 2012 at 9:32 pm

        And also, Catherine has other opportunities to marry and James says one of her suitors was genuinely in love with her. She can’t be so plain and dull… Again I question the narrator…


      • April 11, 2012 at 7:20 pm

        I wobble on the issue but always land on the decision that Morris is after the money, but Tom is right, James leaves room for doubt on that issue–brilliantly so, because you will never know…. so we can easily imagine that small glimmer of doubt plaguing Catherine’s sleep.


        • April 11, 2012 at 10:01 pm

          Absolutely. He puts the reader in the same position as Catherine, there’s always a doubt.

          Catherine and her father are alike, at some point. He never forgot his wife and she never forgot Morris.


  2. April 10, 2012 at 5:54 am

    Yes, exactly, this is a father-daughter story, with the love affair as a catalyst or field of battle. I am not so adept with Freudian terms, so I could not have used the “kills her father” formulation, but it sounds right – she not only learns what he is really like but admits or accepts it, and thus changes herself. Something like that.

    James gives a fair amount of room, I think, for interpreting Morris. He is certainly interested in Catherine’s money – the question is how interested, or perhaps what is the exact nature of the interest. Ah, I just saw how to Queer the novel! Sorry, a silly game once – perhaps still – popular with academic James critics.

    James’s wit was really impressive throughout the book. Maybe I will write a bit about that. Or about anything but the characters, since you cover them so well.

    I have not seen Le goût des autres. I wonder why not – it is the sort of thing I saw back when I watched movies.


    • April 10, 2012 at 9:15 pm

      Catherine learns the hard way that what she thought was tough love is only scorn. The way she analyses him proves she’s not as stupid as James wanted us to think. Her shyness and lack of self-confidence are a real handicap. Only Mrs Almond sees through her.

      Field of battle is the right expression. Dr Sloper is incredibly agressive, like a Western conqueror, sure of his good right and sure to know the Truth and Catherine is like a native in a colonised country, she seems to surrender but her resistance is silent but strong and durable.

      I’m on my way to read your review.

      PS : if you can, watch Le goût des autres.

      PPS : Why did that thought cross my mind : “when I see a character named Catherine, I expect dull” Are there other Catherines like her? I can’t find one right now, except the Catherine in Wuthering Heights.


  3. April 10, 2012 at 7:09 am

    I thought it was a fantastic novel. I can’t seem to remember on what character I was focussing the most – given my personal history – the duo Catherine and her aunt interested me the most.
    There are so many themes which we find in other books as well.
    It’s not my favourite James but it’s one of them.
    Can you remember, in “What Daisy Knew” … which of the two parents was worse or were they rendered as equally bad?
    Looking back I see more father figures in his books than mothers.


    • April 10, 2012 at 9:22 pm

      Aunt Lavinia is really an Austenian character.
      Dr Sloper prides himself with being logical but I find him particularly inconsistent when he says:

      “Try and make a clever woman of her, Lavinia; I should like her to be a clever woman.” Mrs. Penniman, at this, looked thoughtful a moment. “My dear Austin,” she then inquired, “do you think it is better to be clever than to be good?” “Good for what?” asked the Doctor. “You are good for nothing unless you are clever.”

      How can he expect aunt Lavinia to help Catherine develop her intelligence? He should have hired a proper governess for this.

      This is also where the novel meets What Maisie Knew. No good money is to be spent on a girl’s education.

      In What Maisie Knew, all adults are bad; the parents and the step-parents. Pas un pour rattraper l’autre, like we say in French. They’re worse than Dr Sloper, who is already cruel with his sarcasms.


      • April 11, 2012 at 7:36 am

        Thanks for the answer.
        I’ve already got What Maisie Knew, I’m tempted to read it now.


        • April 11, 2012 at 9:59 pm

          I’d love to read your review.


  4. April 10, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    “Washington Square is a masterpiece. It’s pure essence of great literature.”

    Gosh. That’s high praise. As high as I think I’ve seen you give. I’ve not read this James (nor much Janes in 20 years, though I used to have a great fondness for him). I have so much backlog presently it’s painful (not helped by having recently chosen the wrong book to read, due to a Brazil connection which didn’t prove sufficient to overcome the fact I wasn’t in the mood for genre).

    I’ll probably dabble with James again at first, either reading What Daisy Knew or revisiting that old favourite of mine The Aspern Papers. Clearly this one is a triumph though.


    • April 10, 2012 at 4:45 pm

      Max: whenever I return to James, I am impressed, all over again, by his power. There’s a quietness to his novels, a great understatement to what happens, and yet the tragedies are there under all the politeness and the passivity of inaction.


      • April 10, 2012 at 9:31 pm

        Good summary of my impressions.

        When I was reading with the eyes of a 21st C mother I was thinking : Why doesn’t he let her make a mistake? Would her fate be more miserable if she were married to Morris, even to an unfaithful Morris, than growing old as a spinster in her father’s house?


    • April 10, 2012 at 8:48 pm

      It deserves the high praise. Too bad you don’t have a business trip to Washington. 😉

      Seriously, it’s a short read and the style is easy, contrary to What Maisie Knew.

      I want to read at least The Aspern Papers, The Coxon Fund, The Turn of the Screw, The Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassador.


      • April 11, 2012 at 2:19 pm

        Guy’s comment on quietness chimes with what I remember of James.

        I’m hoping for no trips for a bit Emma, if I do get one though it could be anywhere. Hungary woudl be nice, I have tons of unread Hungarian fiction.


        • April 11, 2012 at 10:00 pm

          Of course, you’d be in good literary company in Hungary. I’m curious about the review of the Brazilian novel, now.


  5. April 10, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    I read this years ago and loved it. Reading your wonderful review brought it all back and now I find I would love to read it again. Your Freudian interpretation of Catherine and her father is particularly fascinating (one tiny thing – it’s a ‘fortune hunter’ – just thought you might like to know, you make so very few errors!).


    • April 10, 2012 at 8:56 pm

      Thank you for pointing out “fortune hunter”, I’ll change it.

      To all: don’t hesitate to tell me when I make mistakes. I don’t think it pedantic from you, just educational for me.

      I’ve been thinking again about the Freudian interpretation today — this book stays with you, it’s so powerful. There’s something to explore there. Like I said, Catherine needs to get over her blind admiration for her father to become an adult. She needs to put him down from his pedestal. That’s the first Freudian reference.
      The second one relates to Dr Sloper, who despises Catherine for not being her mother. It’s a bit unhealthy, like the fairytale Peau d’Ane. (what’s the English for it?) He lloks for his late beloved wife in the person of their daughter.


      • April 11, 2012 at 7:22 pm

        It’s a sexist difference.

        Gold digger=female.

        fortune hunter=male


        • April 11, 2012 at 10:03 pm

          How fascinating. I wonder where it comes from. “Fortune hunter” sounds less vulgar than “gold digger”, am I right?


  6. April 10, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    My next James book will definitely be the portmanteau What Daisy Knew, even though all I can do is imagine I am reading it.


    • April 10, 2012 at 9:23 pm

      I’m interested in reading your response to it.


  7. April 10, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    When I read this I was struck also by the wit of Jame’s writing, particularly in the dialogue. I was also intrigued by the narrative voice, which seems to change during the course of the novel, almost seeming to switch allegiance from Dr Sloper to a reluctant neutrality. For me it would be worth reading again, to see if that theory still holds water, and I would also be interested to investigate the connection with Maisy. Both of these characters seem to have an inner strength which is never acknowledged by their associates.


    • April 10, 2012 at 9:28 pm

      I agree with you on the narrative voice and this is why I thought about Le goût des autres. The way the narration is done at the beggining, you assume things about the protagonists. Then the tone gets more neutral, like you say. That’s why I question my first impression that Morris is only interested in the money.

      Yes Maisie and Catherine have something in common. They surf on events, they adapt. They don’t revolt but they see clearly things. Maisie understands a lot more than the adults can tell and she has a good insight of their qualities and flaws. Catherine has the same good sense; aunt Lavinia doesn’t manage to turn her head with silly ideas.


  8. April 11, 2012 at 12:33 am

    When I read this the phrase I used to try to encapsulate my response to it was “domestic espionage novel.” There are a lot of people hiding their motives from each other, a lot of false pretenses.
    The tragedy of inflexibility illustrates the Confucian proverb – ‘The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.’


    • April 11, 2012 at 6:36 am

      I like your “domestic espionage” phrase. That’s also why I chose this title for the post. It’s a domestic war.

      Confucian proverb? For a French, this is a tale by Lafontaine “The oak and the reed”


  9. April 15, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    I’ve read ‘The Bostonians’, ‘What Maisy Knew’ and ‘The Wings of the Dove’ of James’ works – I haven’t particularly enjoyed any of them. Is there anything to suggest I’d like this one?!


    • April 15, 2012 at 1:18 pm

      I haven’t read The Bostonians or The Wings of the Dove but I’ve read What Maisie Knew. I’d say Washington Square is more “Trollopian” than What Maisie Knew in its style. So there is hope for you, plus it’s short.


  10. April 17, 2012 at 10:48 pm

    Have you seen “The Heiress” directed by William Wyler and starring Olivia de Haviland, Ralph Richardson and Montgomery Clift? It’s an adaptation of “Washington Square”, and I think it’s superbly scripted, acted and directed. The internalised drama of James’ novel is brought out into the open and made explicit, but that was perhaps inevitable: the relationships between the the characters seem to me superbly handled, and the scene whe the daughter refuses to see her dying father is surprisingly uncompromising for a classic Hollywod film. It’s surprising, given how literary the effects of James’ works are, how well they have so often adapted to screen (“The Innocents”, based on “The Turn of the Screw”, is a particular favourite of mine).


    • April 18, 2012 at 10:15 pm

      I haven’t seen it but you remind me that I have a film version of Washington Square at home and that I intended to watch it soon after re-reading the book.


  1. May 4, 2012 at 4:45 pm
  2. December 27, 2012 at 12:18 am

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