Washington Square

"Washington Square," review of Washington Square, by Henry James, Claremont Review of Books, 18 October 2010.


Henry James’s short novel Washington Square is about Dr. Austin Sloper, a resident of that Square in New York City, who cannot persuade his daughter Cath­erine not to marry Morris Townsend, whom he correctly regards as an idle mercenary. Although he is a successful doctor he fails as a father. Be­sides being a doctor, he is several times called a philosopher, as having an aura above practical science, and in confirmation is said to have “an idea of the beauty of reason.” But he cannot rule his daughter with the authority of his reason and ends up losing her respect. The novel is a story of loss: Dr. Sloper loses his daughter, and she loses both him and her lover, who also loses her. In the end, Catherine is vindicated as the heroine of the novel because only she is able to come to terms with her loss.

To say that the novel “is about” this or some­thing else betrays my amateur status as literary critic, for I cannot read a book without wonder­ing whether the author has a point to convey, and about the conventions of criticism apart from that point I am ill-informed. I believe that James has something valuable to say about authority, in America or anywhere, in the time of “repub­lican simplicity” of his novel or at any time, and in particular on the authority of science and the resistance to it that continues today.

Disappointment and Acceptance

Let us begin as does James with the character of Dr. Sloper, very definitively set down at the beginning of the novel. Sloper was a distinguished physician, a member of a profession known in America more than elsewhere as liberal. James is writing, or the nar­rator is telling, of the recent past, “the first half of the present century,” in early 19th-century America when things were different. Yet it is constant in America that to “play a social part” one must earn or appear to earn one’s income, thus be practical, while at the same time to be “touched by the light of science,” like the physi­cian, is also accounted merit. Americans have a “love of knowledge…not always…accompanied by leisure and opportunity”-James’s typically indirect way of saying that Americans are not quite satisfied with the practical but not willing to devote themselves to an impractical love of knowledge for its own sake.

This was a “scholarly doctor” who always gave his patients a prescription, a remedy as well as an explanation, neither theoretical without a remedy nor vulgar without an explanation. He was popular and had a first-rate reputation, which are equivalents in American democracy. His public character easily survived two griev­ous blows, the death of his first-born child, a son, followed by the death of his wife in giving birth to his second-born, a daughter. For these fail­ures he was pitied rather than blamed by others, but he blamed himself for the rest of his days. He was, and was known to be, a “clever man,” but he suffered disappointment in his own life, in the application of his cleverness to his own affairs. His disappointment fell most heavily on his surviving daughter, Catherine, who was both plain and dull, yet so robust and healthy that the doctor could have no fear of losing her as he had lost his wife and son.