Washington Square by Henry James

Strange it is to revisit a work after decades and discover that you have not appreciated the subtlety or the depth of its craft. Thus is it with Washington Square and me. James had a much easier time I think in getting appreciation for his heroine Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady because she was witty, beautiful and full of feminine possibilities. Her tragedy was therefore easy to understand. The protagonist of Washington Square, however, was someone the other main characters all found to be less than impressive. In fact her father, Dr Sloper, found his daughter to be a disappointment, a plain-faced dim-witted female in need of protection. Ironically, the reader also tends to underestimate Catherine Sloper. It is only with some effort that one understands the depth of her emotional ability and the courage of her steadfastness in the face of family resistance.

Catherine Sloper’s dilemma does not rise to tragedy. Hers is the quiet desperation that comes from the realization that her one chance to escape a life of restricted possibility has been betrayed by the lack of faith by another and that the great emotional love she has held for her parent is not reciprocated, at least not in a comparable way.

Years later I find that my evaluation of Dr Sloper has more complexity. He does love his daughter, at least in his own coldly pragmatic way, but he has no understanding of how much he has damaged her.

The three characters who reside in Washington Square are trapped there, comforted and protected but emotionally trapped. The journey to Europe is neither an escape nor a vacation. Nothing is learned and nothing changes because of it. The young man who has initially invaded Washington Square returns, older but no kinder and no wiser, and of course by then all possibilities have vanished.

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