Washington Square

Monday, December 2, 2013


Washington Square
by Henry James
★★★★

Catherine is a young woman living in New York City with her father in the 19th century. She is a plain sweet girl who has had a cold upbringing. After her mother died in childbirth her father never recovered. He married out of love and her death broke his spirit forever.  The result was a distant parent who treated Catherine with a mild objective interest at best.

As Catherine grows older she begins to attend parties and at one she meets the charming Morris Townsend. His immediate interest in her and his passionate attitude sweeps her off her feet. Her father, Dr. Sloper, forbids the match, believing Morris to be interested in her only for her money.

The novel is an opera of subtlety. In the first half we aren’t sure of Morris’ true intentions. We aren’t sure of the depth of Catherine’s feelings and we aren’t sure if her father’s suspicions are justified or if they’re a product of his controlling nature. There’s never a big reveal, just a series of quiet scenes that reveal the individuals’ true character.

Dr. Sloper’s sister, Mrs. Lavinia Penniman (a widow), lives with them and creates a strange dynamic. She thrives on drama and she pushes her own romantic notions on both Morris and Catherine, tainting Catherine’s judgment and unnecessarily pushing herself into the middle of their courtship.

SPOILERS
For me, the most interesting aspect of the book is Catherine’s nature and her evolution throughout the story. She kept her emotions tucked deep inside her, showing little of how she truly felt. As she matures and the plot unfolds she continues to stand strong. The suspense comes from inaction, a slow burn towards two potential outcomes. Catherine changes slowly; she begins to take pride in her obstinacy and finds the courage to stand up to her father. By the end of the book she may be living a lonely life, but she has found the strength to resist Morris.

The moment when Morris’ sister tells Catherine’s father not to let her marry her brother is a turning point. That’s the moment we truly begin to suspect Morris for being the shallow selfish man he is.

As we get to know her father, even if he is dismissive and condescending to her, I felt like he really did have her best interests at heart. He became so callous towards the world after his wife died that he didn’t understand how to be compassionate anymore. He whisks her off to tour Europe for months in a vain effort to make her forget him.

BOTTOM LINE: I liked this one more than I thought I would. There’s no major action, but watching Catherine slowly grow strong under the circumstances was beautifully done.

“He walked under the weight of this very private censure for the rest of his days, and bore forever the scars of a castigation to which the strongest hand he knew had treated him on the night that followed his wife's death.”

“…it seemed to her that a mask had suddenly fallen from his face.”

10 comments:

Susan Bybee said...

I saw the Olivia de Havilland/Montgomery Clift movie based on this book years ago. It was superb.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I loved reading your thoughts on this one and think this would be a great one for me right about now. Excellent review Melissa

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Susan - I've never seen that one. I'll have to check it out!

Diane - I hope you enjoy it!

Kailana said...

I have never even heard of this book before. Sounds like a nice, uncomplicated read. Something that is needed once in a while.

Andi said...

I skimmed because I still have this book on my stacks. I'm looking forward to it and really enjoyed Daisy Miller, which I've found to often be lumped into one volume with Washington Square.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I have heard nothing but good about this book. It almost sounds like a Jane Austen. One of these days I'll have to get to it.

Bookworm1858 said...

Have you seen the film adaptation THE HEIRESS (referenced by Susan Bybee above)? That was my first introduction to this story and it is excellent (I think I like it more than the book with its different ending.)

JoAnn said...

I think I enjoyed this one even more than you did. Of course, reading it immediately after seeing Dan Stevens play Morris in the Broadway play helped ;-)

bibliophilica said...

This was a "momentum read" for me several years back when I read The Turn of the Screw "and other stories." My book club discussed TTOTS and I just kept going. I liked it well enough. There's a serviceable movie adaptation starring Jennifer Jason Leigh(!) too.
-Jay

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Kailana - It's straight forward, but elegantly written.

Andi - Daisy Miller was a interesting one too. I read it shortly after a trip to Rome and so I always remember it because of that connection.

Sandy - It reminds me of Austen in a lot of ways, but without the sense of humor.

Bookworm1858 - I haven't seen it, but I'll check it out!

JoAnn - Oh my goodness, so jealous! That would be incredible!

bibliophilica - I'll check that one out too. Turn of the Screw is just as subtle, but in such a different way!