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Washington Square is a book by Henry James, and takes place in late 19th century New York City. It is the story of a simple women, and what happens to her. What follows is a report I wrote about the book my sophomore year for english class, so treat it as such, i.e. don't be cruel with it, I was young and stupid then, even more so than I am now.

Washington Square is a place in New York City, and in this book it is the eventual home of Doctor Sloper, his daughter Catherine, and his sister Mrs. Penniman. For a time it is also the home of Morris Townsend, who wishes to marry Catherine. The book begins with a quick description of the life of Catherine, her attitude toward her father, and what role her aunt plays. Catherine, as is repeated throughout the book by her father, is a plain looking girl of average intelligence, which is quiet a disappointment to her father, who wished that she could be more spectacular. The book is basically the story of a bunch of relationships, and how they affect, manipulate, and mangle the innocent and vanilla personality of Catherine.

Firstly, and probably most strongly, Catherine has a rather odd relationship with her father. Dr. Sloper is a good father to Catherine, except that he is cold-hearted as can be. Although he carries out the role of father with zeal and always looks out for what he thinks are her best interests, his affection toward her is not for fatherly love, but more than he feels a deep responsibility to care for her. His level of care is odd too, in that he sees her as some sort of machine, he does not, or more likely cannot, care for her emotional or spiritual health at all. The Doctor has no problems manipulating her, as long as he believes that it what he does is puts her closer to his version of what kind of life she should live, regardless of the pain inflicted on her in the meantime. In the beginning, Catherine does not fully realize what kind of a man her father is, and only has the utmost respect for him. For his intelligence, though, she fears him. Catherine realizes the truth about her father when she tries to get him to approve of her marriage to Mr. Townsend. Her father rightfully denies her the marriage, but in the process he hurts her in ways he cannot understand.

Another force in Catherine’s life is her Aunt Mrs. Penniman. Lavina is a women with a very romantic view of life, and she only sees things in this light. If Doctor Sloper applied reason to the point of folly, then Lavina and her romantic view of everything is just as bad. Whereas Dr. Sloper can see through Mr. Townsend, she cannot and encourages Catherine in her engagement with Morris. Lavina sees this as her “duty”, and would find a high level of self-satisfaction in being involved in the marriage of Catherine and Morris, especially because of Dr. Sloper’s involvement. You might say that her reasons for wanting Catherine to get married are selfish. In the end, she is probably just as much to blame for the damage done to Catherine. In the beginning, she and Catherine get along very well. Catherine sees her as a refreshing change from her cold father, and is glad to have somebody “on her side”. Eventually though, she figures out that Lavina is flawed as much as her father, and the two don’t get along as well. Catherine doesn’t get angry or carry a grudge, which all fits in with her simple character, so she could never really be mad at her, she only grows distant.

Finally Morris Townsend is the last figure that wants to involve themselves in Catherine’s future. In the first half of the book, one could arguably say that he might actually really like her, and wants to have a good future with her, and doesn’t care about the money. Maybe. By the second half of the book, it is pretty clear that he is only interested in Catherine’s money. Morris is probably the most active force on Catherine’s live, causing her to actually fall in love with him. He has her heart on a string so to speak, and he abuses it to no extent. He woos her to no extent, and she falls for it hook, line, and sinker. After he realizes that he isn’t going to be able to get at the main body of Catherine’s fortune due to Dr. Sloper, he gives up. This shatters Catherine, relatively at least.

So toward the end of the book, after Morris has left Catherine’s life, we are left to look at this simple, plain girl to see the net effect of these forces on her life. It is appropriate that Catherine be such a plain girl. The setup resembles some sort of scientific experiment, and if Catherine had a strong personality, it would have skewn the results. As it is, we had Morris pulling at her heart, Dr. Sloper correctly denying Catherine’s heart what it wanted, but in entirely the wrong way, and Mrs. Penniman trying to incorrectly counteract the Doctor’s pull, but for the wrong reasons. The net effect was to truly break Catherine emotionally. She describes her love as a spring, which between Morris and her father fighting over, was broken. I would suggest that Mrs. Penniman was just as much to blame, only drawing her deeper to Morris, and widening the gap between her and her father. There are three qualities which the three characters in Catherine’s live have, and each lacks one in a big way, but have the other two in abundance. The three qualities are goodness (morals), empathy (not necessarily genuine), and intelligence. The Doctor lacks empathy, Lavina lacks intelligence, and Morris lacks goodness. The combination of these three extremes is what breaks Catherine.

So in the end, we find an aged Catherine, a dead doctor, and a Mrs. Penniman who is the same as ever. Catherine has never remarried, despite her share of more than worthy suitors asking for her. The damage done on her is simply too great. She has spent her life doing charity work trying to find what she lost, but I don’t think she ever really found it. Against her will, Catherine is forced to see and aged Morris one last time, who one last time tries to get back on good terms with her. She quickly sends him away, and asks him never to return. This was a triumph on her part; she resisted the (assumedly, years and years have past, but he is probably the same) evil Morris this time and didn’t fall into his trap. I don’t consider this a happy ending however. Catherine may have sent him away, but in the process, she does not get back what she lost because of him. I don’t think that she sent him away because she was any smarter, or wiser, or braver. I think she did it because she was still “broken” from what he did to her, in effect, she told him to go away because there was nothing there anymore, there was nothing left of her, she was defeated. So this is what can happen to innocent people, who live with not so innocent people.

As I have gotten older, and read more classic literature, I've learned to trust my first impressions more. When I was young and got lost or annoyed by a serious literary text, I figured that it was just slowness or confusion on my part. But now, when I get a feeling from a text, I follow it and believe it.

Washington Square is an example. A little bit less than halfway through the text of this book, I realized that while I could follow the plot easily enough, I could not relate to any of the characters. In the past, I would have just assumed that the social customs of 19th Century New York City were just too impenetrable for me to follow. But the truth is, the characters in Washington Square are hard to relate to because they are unlikable characters. This is a book about bad people ruining their own lives, and once I realized that, I decided to read it as a comedy.

There are four characters in Washington Square: Catherine Sloper, the heiress to a good-sized fortune, who lives with her father, Doctor Sloper, a successful doctor, in a mansion in Washington Square. Doctor Sloper's sister, a widow named Mrs. Penniman, and Morris Townsend, a young man who courts Catherine Sloper. The plot of the book revolves around the fact that Morris Townsend's main motivation in pursuing Catherine is probably her money. Doctor Sloper wants to protect his daughter from a mercenary marriage, while her aunt, Miss Penniman, like the intrigue of playing matchmaker. This is a fairly basic plot, but what interested me about the story was how much I didn't like the characters, who spent the book making each other miserable. Catherine Sloper is easily flattered and fixated on the attention she gets from Townsend, but seems to have no other interests, and seems to take no notice of the world around her, being comfortable in her sheltered existence. Her father, seemingly trying to "protect" her, is self-righteous, inflexible, and denigrates her constantly. Her aunt treats the entire situation as a literary romance, and seems to view the people around her as characters, rather than people, enjoying the intrigue that comes from her niece's romance, without thinking of her feelings. And Townsend is a glib, manipulative and greedy man. Each of the characters stumbles about with short-sighted motivations, and never seem to learn or grow in any way. They make each other miserable and then fade away without learning anything.

There is a question of authorial intent here, as with any book. And my view might not be universal: apparently there are people who view Catherine as the heroine of the story, because...by the end of the book, she is happy living off her inheritance and doing embroidery, which represents character growth. I don't know specifically what Henry James intended when he wrote this book: was it a psychological study? Was it an analysis of a social milieu? Was it "just" an attempt to tell a story? Henry James himself didn't think much of the book, so maybe he, like Townsend, was merely inspired by the money. Whatever his intent, my own reading is that is an almost comical story about what happens when people are dishonest with each other, and with themselves.

And as a final note, while the book has been adopted into a movie several times, it has been as a serious drama. Reading the book, I wondered what a comedic interpretation of the book would be like: Townsend played by an annoying actor like Adam Sandler, oozing with smarminess, Doctor Sloper as a self-righteous martinet, Miss Penniman as a soap opera-obsessed gossip, and Catherine Sloper as a dully oblivious girl.

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