First published in 1880.
A wealthy but plain heiress falls for a fortune-hunter. Her father is not pleased.
The novel is told from a third-person omniscient point of view. The narrator often offers his comments directly to the reader.
The novella begins at a distance from the characters, describing the background of the Sloper family. It then recounts in detail the story of Catherine's romance with Morris Townsend. When Morris jilts her, the focus shifts back to a long view. As James puts it: "Our story has hitherto moved with very short steps, but as it approaches its termination it must take a long stride." The final few chapters are taken once more in short steps, ending with the striking vignette of Catherine's refusal of Morris.
The bitterest irony in the story is that Dr. Sloper, a brilliant and successful physician, is exactly right about Morris Townsend, and yet shows complete cruelty to his defenseless and loving daughter. If the doctor was incorrect in his appraisal of the worthless Townsend, he would only be a stock villain. As it is, the doctor's head works perfectly but his heart has grown cold after the death of his beautiful and gifted wife.
Catherine gradually grows throughout the story into right judgment of her situation. As James puts it simply but memorably: "From her point of view the great facts of her career were that Morris Townsend had trifled with her affection, and that her father had broken its spring. Nothing could ever alter these facts; they were always there, like her name, her age, her plain face. Nothing could ever undo the wrong or cure the pain that Morris had inflicted on her, and nothing could ever make her feel towards her father as she felt in her younger years." Catherine will never be brilliant, but she learns to be clear-sighted.
"Everybody likes Washington Square, even the denigrators of Henry James," wrote critic Donald Hall, and most other commentators have echoed the sentiment. Although James himself regarded the novel with near contempt, readers have enjoyed its linear narrative technique, its straightforward prose (far removed from the convoluted language of James's later career), and the sharply etched portraits of the four main characters. Even the rusty plot revolving around "the will" has charmed many critics with its old-fashioned simplicity.
Catherine's slow but unmistakable development into independence and wisdom is a notable success for James and has been much appreciated by critics and readers in general.
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