Review: Washington Square

Henry James (1880)

My book club’s first selection of the year (way back in January) was a good introduction to Henry James and a hefty character study that lent itself well to discussion. The story centers on Catherine Sloper, a painfully shy woman on the verge of spinsterhood who has never lived up to her dead mother’s great beauty, especially in the eyes of her eternally disappointed father. Catherine is neither socially adept nor clever but she is an obedient daughter who seeks the approval of her respected and cold-hearted father.

Until handsome Morris Townsend enters their lives.

The wealthy and successful Dr. Sloper triggers an unexpected battle of wills with his daughter when he takes an unfavorable view of Morris, a most determined suitor of dubious intent. No sooner has Morris met Catherine at a dance then he is frequently calling upon her and recruiting her meddlesome aunt to speak his praises to Sloper father and daughter. Catherine’s father is immediately suspicious, as he would be of any young man who would take too intense an interest in such a charmless and dull girl as his daughter. Her only asset, as he sees it, is the assets she’ll inherit upon the his death. Dr. Sloper tries everything in his power to prevent the union and in the process, Catherine experiences a life-changing transformation.

Having unsuccessfully attempted to read Henry James a number of times in the past, and having seen most of the famous big screen adaptations of his books (Portrait of a Lady, Wings of a Dove, The Bostonians and both adaptations of this book, The Heiress and Washington Square), I fully expected dry language and prose I’d be tripping over for days. I was pleasantly surprised by both the style and the story and enjoyed the book quite a bit. Since I knew how the story ended before it began (which I won’t reveal here) I was nonetheless impressed by James’ ability to draw out the tension, keeping the motives of each major player in just enough uncertainty to keep it interesting until the very end.

Questions of motivation, transformation, and historical/social setting made for great discussion topics, most interesting of which was just who is the most unlikable (“evil”) character…Dr. Sloper, Aunt Lavinia or Morris.

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