Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Washington Square

Henry James (1843-1916)

James was one of the main proponents of realism and that's what we get in Washington Square. The story centers around the courtship and engagement of Morris Townsend and Catherine Sloper. The Slopers are a good New York family, wealthy and respected. Dr. Sloper is a successful physician who's always had a strange relationship with his daughter Catherine. She never measured up to her deceased mother, either in looks or smarts. Sloper quickly acknowledged her deficiencies and contented himself with expecting very little from her but quiet concession. Throughout the novel Sloper anticipates the action. He sees that his daughter would be susceptible to a gold digger. Lo and behold Catherine meets the gorgeous hunk, Morris Townsend.
Townsend's motives are always suspect. He's handsome and eloquent but really lazy. That tips off Sloper. Catherine's feelings towards Morris are likewise confusing. She likes the attention from the sophisticated man about town, but it seems like she could take him or leave him. What ensues is a Machiavellian battle between the sharp and smart Dr. Sloper and the suave, conniving Townsend. They kick Catherine back and forth, with little thought for her feelings, in an attempt to be "right." For her part, Catherine is far too deferential to her father and not aware enough to suspect Townsend's motives. Things are not helped by Aunt Livinia's Lady MacBeth-esque behind the scenes machinations.
Finally, Sloper plays his Trump card, he decides to take away Catherine's inheritance if she marries Morris. The ball goes to Townsend's court and he decides to quit the game. Why? It's never clear whether he was truly after her cash, it certainly was part of his attraction to Catherine, but it wasn't his only attraction. Henry James vaults about twenty-five years into the future where we find Sloper dead and Catherine an old maid. An older and less attractive Townsend shows up one day and begs her to be "friends" again. The years of experience had served Catherine well, she shows some fortitude and tells him to go away.
The star of the book is James's writing. The way he enters the character's thought processes is brilliant. We get to hear what characters say under their breath, the hustle and newness of New York City is nicely depicted, and the power struggle in relationships is palpable. There is a weird filial control that Sloper exerts over Catherine, but that could be more the product of the 1830s than anything else.

Rating 7/10: Henry James sets us up with for a major event in Washington Square. Maybe the murder of one of the big three, or even Livinia. The long awaited marriage of Catherine and Morris never happens. So we never get to see how Sloper would have reacted to that betrayal. Instead we get a very understated, but emotional conclusion. Brilliant style, memorable characters, but the plot points could have used a bit more umph.