Novelist Arthur Phillips describes “Washington Square” by Henry James as “a very modern novel indeed: all questions, no answers,” which is exactly right. This novel’s plot is fairly simple and easy to follow; its language, while at times antiquated and erudite, is not very difficult to decipher or understand. Its length is average: a little less than two hundred pages in my edition by Everyman’s Library. Yet this novel provides a rich and engrossing tale that grips readers until its very last page and leaves them nonplussed; any reader in search of a definitive answer or “moral to the story” must look elsewhere, for the book does not outline any possible solutions to the intricate problems it cultivates. At the end, it remains a spectacle as resolute and nonsensical as the place of its title, Washington Square, a location which still exists today in New York City.
The novel’s protagonist is Catherine Sloper, an ordinary girl who predictably grows into an unspectacular woman under the care of her father, Doctor Austin Sloper. Since Catherine’s mother died shortly after giving birth to her, Dr. Sloper and his sister Lavinia Penniman, also a widow, raise Catherine in wealthy but utilitarian comfort, for besides Catherine’s mother’s inheritance, Dr. Sloper makes a handsome amount of money in his profession as a physician.
The real twist in the novel occurs when Morris Townsend is introduced to the young Catherine at a family party. A distant relative with no fortune or profession to speak of, Morris’s motives for singling out the innocent Catherine and flirting with her are immediately seen as suspect and mercenary by Catherine’s father. On the other hand, Catherine’s aunt takes a special liking to Morris from the outset, and she becomes a confidant for both him and her niece as the relationship between them develops, much to the disappointment of Dr. Sloper. Catherine, who has always feared and respected her father above all else, must decide whether to defy his wishes and marry Morris or to obey him as she has always done and forsake her love.
Throughout the novel, the reader wonders whether or not Morris—a charismatic, naturally attractive figure—is after the hapless Catherine solely for the sake of the massive inheritance she stands to gain from her impressive father. With the same ambiguity it maintains in its conclusion, the novel does not make it apparent one way or the other what Morris’ exact intentions are; evidence abounds on both sides. With its awkward, unknown first-person narrative point-of-view, the story essentially gets told in third-person as it includes scenes that provide insights to multiple characters in the absence of significant others. Catherine eventually does defy her father, but does so in such a way and with such unfortunate timing that her father ends up disinheriting her and Morris ends up leaving her for a business adventure elsewhere.
So why is this novel so mesmerizing? It possesses a talent for posing tantalizingly unanswerable questions that are essential to life. What is acceptable to love about someone? Is it wrong to love them for things that they were born with, such as their wealth and status? And at what point can one be absolved from their commitment to loving someone when that person or things about them change? About the specific characters, one perpetually wonders: whether or not Morris is a fraud in his apparent affections; to what extent Catherine is simpleminded and unsensational because her father expected her to be so and thus treated her in a condescending and pathetic manner for his entire life; how the ministrations of Catherine’s Aunt Lavinia affected the whole ordeal and to what extent she participated selfishly. The questions go on, and the square remains intact; the four central characters of the novel all end up—to varying degrees—worse off after the whole ordeal, and one struggles to imagine how the situation could have ended any less tragically with its perfect combination of complex characters.
“Washington Square” is a great read for anyone who wants to ponder some of life’s big questions about relationships and love. Agnieszka Holland directed a beautiful film adaptation starring Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Albert Finney, Maggie Smith and Ben Chaplin. I would highly recommend both the book and the movie to any thoughtful individual searching for a fulfilling work of art posing questions that continue to haunt those who indulge in it for some time.