Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Henry James's "Washington Square"

Finally read Washington Square over the Memorial Day weekend. It's comforting, physically, to be in the hands of a master. Catherine Sloper, who has to choose between father and lover, is a wonderful creation. She is dull and plain, but her predicament achieves tragic intensity, and, finally, poignancy. Her father, the successful New York doctor, is also a formidable achievement. A diagnostician of men and women, he judges his daughter rightly, but overlooks the alienating effect of his condescension toward her. 

The other two main characters are simpler. Mrs. Penniman, the nosy aunt, is a slightly more sophisticated version of Austen's emotional women; she is more sensibility than sense. The lover Morris Townsend is a charming rogue, and not much more. The main axle that moves the story forward is the relationship between father and daughter; that relationship looks forward to the one in James's masterpiece The Golden Bowl, in which not two, but four fully drawn characters circle the pitfalls of love and loyalty. 

Washington Square, as its name suggests, also offers the pleasures of seeing something of New York City in the first half of the nineteenth century. The titular square was then surrounded by newish houses, and filled with the aroma of ailanthus. Ambitious young men like Arthur Townsend planted the flag of their houses further north, confident that the rest of society would follow after them, as the city expanded. 

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