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Book Review: Washington Square, by Henry James

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If there is any writer in the history of American literature who is a testament to the fallacy of category, it’s Henry James. During a 50-year career in which he tackled the art of the novel, short story and essay with religious fervor, he established a persona that meant many things to many people, but nothing that anyone has able to peg upon him convincingly. Too often his detractors partake in sloppy, self-indulgent reading that is synonymous with the decline in the literacy of the times. Yet too often his defenders trot out tired cliches in defense of him, (“Art for art’s sake,” “Style works as form,” etc. ) marginalizing James profound and introspective search for human nature and character in the process. Yet again, I take umbrage with the scores of second-rate novelists who throughout history thought they were crafting their own “Bostonians” and “Ambassadors” by putting a half a dozen commas and semi colons in every one of their sentences (with a sprinkle of bad psychological analysis in between).

So am I writing you with any definitive answers about who many believe to be the leading man of American letters? Hell no. But from reading five of his novels, two books of essays, and two short story collections, I have my opinions and reasons why I consider myself a Jamesophile.

To me, reading James is taking a glance of the limitless possibilities of the English language. The beauty of his prose doesn’t come from a cohesive whole, but sentence to sentence, sometimes terse and concise, sometimes extending to a half a page. Yet his style wouldn’t have as much meaning if it didn’t augment his sophisticated theories on fiction. James established a detached, high flown literary style that gave him a distance from his characters, which in turn enabled him to give them numerous ambiguities, shades of personality, and depths of thought. The result is a highly powerful and wildly imaginative brand of realism exemplary of the power of great fiction. Although I haven’t read all his oeuvre, Washington Square is a great introduction to James, showing the full range of his creative powers.

The book centers on the three person dynamic of the Sloper family. There’s Austin Sloper, a semi-wealthy doctor whose two parts disdain, two parts sardonicism and one part charm. He has a daughter named Catherine, who he kinda loves between his fits of misogynistic contempt for her. Catherine isn’t, in James portrayal, the most attractive person in a world, but she has a warm humanity to her that is easy to like. Lavinia, the aunt, serves as a buffer between the two, comforting Catherine and charming the mercurial Austin.

Entre Mssr Morris Townsend, a charming, amorous huckster, who is a toxic mix of seduction and bullsh*t. Before he entered the world of the Slopers, he was a grifter who relied on his wit and good looks to steal and gamble away women’s fortunes. He originally doesn’t look on Catherine too kindly, but upon hearing that her father has a steep trust fund for her after he dies, Morris suddenly deems her to be his Beatrice. Their courtship is a torrid yet fraudulent one, so transparent to all but Catherine that by the time he asks for her hand in marriage, I found myself yelling at the book for her not to. Upon hearing that a two-bit con man asked for her daughters hand in marriage, Dr Sloper becomes apoplectic and demands that Catherine not see him, sending their father/daughter relationship into a steep and brutal downward spiral. Lavinia is torn between her love for Catherine and the chance of a wedding and a bigger piece of the Dr Sloper trust fund pie.

As the story unfolds, the immense depth of the characters give it great intrigue and nuance. James masterfully sidesteps the temptation of typecasting by letting their actions speak for themselves. There are no easy enemies here: although Dr Sloper is at times a loathsome cur, you get the sense that deep down inside he really cares for his daughter, but is a member of his times and subject to the sexual morays of them, which were the presupposed inferiority of women and the demand for their submission. Even Morris, who by his own words and actions can be quite a slime ball, has an youthful, angst-ridden charm to him. Lavinia is no simple saint either, as in the course of this novel she ends up conning her niece nearly out of house and home.

But there is one “saint ” in this novel and her name is Catherine Sloper. Throughout the arc of the story, she loses almost everything that she holds dear in her life except her sense of self. Her father, scared that his money is going to be wasted when Catherine marries Morris the degenerate gambler, decides to not give her a dime. Upon hearing that the fiduciary petals had been clipped from his newfound rose, Morris decides to ditch Catherine. And all the while Lavinia, her loving aunt, hustles her until there is almost nothing of Catherine left, financially or spiritually. But Catherine survives, her innocence gone, bank account depleted but soul intact. In the end, she’s more than a plaster saint, she’s a real, brave and vividly written woman who’s been through a lot and come out a survivor. Few female characters by male novelists I have read have been more believable.

Again, I must admit that I am only a rank amateur in the scope of Jamesophiles. My personal favorite James era is between 1881-1890, in which the psychological thought was married to his prose and the prose became psychological thought in itself. While The Golden Bowl and some of his later stories have many moments of brilliance, they are works that are too insular and don’t have the deft craftsmanship of James at his very best. But I could read another one of his late era novels and be proven dead wrong. Henry James is a writer that all people should read, and Washington Square is a good place to start. To those who want to obtain a high amount of coherence in American literature, or literature in general, his is a bridge that you must pass.

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About Robert Lashley

  • http://comp.uark.edu/~wyuliant wawan eko yulianto

    thanks for the review. i’m reading washington square myself, and in agreement with most of the things you write here. to me, almost each of the characters in the novella has the quality that makes me clench my first in anger: dr. slopper’s always-wanna-see-perfectionness, catherine’s passiveness and innocence and naïveté, morris’ too cultivated yet deceitful manner.

    however, what makes me angry the most is the fact that catherine’s blindness to see through the morris. she’s just too unsuspecting yet stubborn.

    i feel there’s some kind of gap here. and i’m trying to reveal it. anyway, thanks for sharing your invaluable thoughts…

  • http://www.prolificliving.com/blog Farnoosh Brock

    Excellent review of Washington Square. I just finished this amazing, mesmerizing, supremely well-written novel and finished writing my book blog post on it but before doing so, I did a search and came across your website. I think Catherine is why I kept reading and reading. Excellent story really! Jamesophile you say? I like it! :)!