Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Washington Square: Henry James

As a long standing fan of Henry James, I picked up Washington Square expecting the Henry James version of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Summarized as the tale of docile Catherine Sloper, the daughter of well-to-do Dr. Sloper, Washington Square is a study in "the moral consequences of the callous exploitation of trust and the ruthless manipulation of a tender heart." Moral consequences! Callous exploitation! Ruthless manipulation! AND a tender heart? Sign me up! What I found instead, was a challenging read about a lifestyle so far removed from my own that I struggled to choke it down.

To begin with, try to keep in mind that Washington Square takes place in the 1840's New York. An era when roads were still traversed by carriage, but the electric lamp was on the verge of appearance. Things were changing in many ways, but there were still only a handful of options for a young woman: get married, become a wealthy spinster, or be a governess or house maid. I am generally able to acclimate to this idea fairly quickly, however the harder pill to swallow is the idea that a young woman's worth is based first in her appearance, then in her wealth, and only lastly in her personality. Catherine Sloper is the young, marrying aged daughter of Dr. Sloper, who describes his daughter as one might a dog. She is not clever, but she is very "good", which is fortunate because she is so uncomely. She is loyal, which will favor her in marriage to whomever will settle on her. "Dr. Sloper would have liked to be proud of his daughter; but there was nothing to be proud of in dear Catherine." (7) Catherine is spoken of in such terms that offend me on her behalf! I can only assume that this characterization of the young woman from her own father's mouth is meant to illustrate either her extensive shortcomings, or his attitude of negativity. I am prone to believe in the latter, but here's the draw... this story has no resolution.

It's a short and simple story that goes like this. Catherine meets a man named Morris Townsend. Morris is said to have no money as he lost all of his own on a wild lifestyle of gambling and women. Morris sets his eye on Catherine, which arises suspicion in her father. After all, she is a plain girl, without cleverness. Why on Earth would an attractive play boy like Morris take interest? Obviously it has to do with all of her money. She already receives an annual stipend from her deceased mother's estate, and upon his death, Catherine will inherit the vast majority of Dr. Sloper's fortune. The good doctor takes it upon himself to warn his beloved, loyal daughter of the dangers that come with being courted by someone like Morris. He will woo her for her money, only to spend all of it and leave her destitute, at which point, having no moral fiber at all, Morris will leave poor, dumb Catherine in the gutter. Thinking to outwit the young man, Dr. Sloper forbids Catherine to marry Morris, on penalty of losing her inheritance. Believing that Morris will lose all interest in his daughter once she has been cut off from her impending wealth, Dr. Sloper refuses to bend despite Catherine's emotional pleas to accept her undying love for Morris Townsend. The young woman finds herself torn between her heart and filial obligations. She has spent these years sheltered in the care of her father, who now threatens to remove that care should she marry Morris Townsend, who seems hesitant to make her any promises for the future. To further complicate things, Catherine's meddlesome aunt Lavinia finds the idea of an elopement terribly romantic, and is constantly intruding on the couple, encouraging them first to wait out Dr. Sloper, and when that doesn't work, to rush out and marry in secret. When it becomes obvious that Dr. Sloper will never relent, Morris breaks the engagement. Because he doesn't want to interfere with the loving relationship of father and daughter, as he says? Or because he doesn't want to be the cause of her unhappiness? Or, as Dr. Sloper suspects, because he has no interest in a woman without a fortune. I won't spoil the ending for you, but I can say that there is no happily ever after. For anyone. No one is really satisfied, and our omniscient narrator doesn't provide us with any black and white truths to indicate Morris' motivations.

I can say without a doubt that this is my least favorite Henry James novel. As a debate in morals, I suppose this might be an excellent text to study. Who is the most moral character? Who is the most virtuous? My inclination is of course to tout the honors of Catherine who bravely faces first her father, and then Morris, prepared to do whatever is asked, to take any punishment, in favor of being true to her heart. On the other hand, it is Dr. Sloper who sticks, inflexibly, to his position. We may assume that seeing his daughter broken-hearted would be painful for him, but he refuses to budge, and goes to his grave refusing to honor Catherine with her inheritance. However, I have to wonder just how much he loves his good and loyal daughter, considering the way he speaks about her, and then treats her. Regardless, I think it's fair to say that Morris has little moral fiber. If we are to believe that he takes leave of Catherine for the sake of her relationship with her father, then I suppose he is to be considered honorable. However, if his love was as pure as he says it is, I can't imagine that a little thing like disinheritance would drive him away.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is, I didn't much care for it. And I apparently have a really hard time with books that don't end with obvious resolutions.

Rating: $.5

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