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Literature / Washington Square

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"When Catherine is about seventeen," he said to himself, "Lavinia will try and persuade her that some young man with a moustache is in love with her. It will be quite untrue; no young man, with a moustache or without, will ever be in love with Catherine."
Dr. Austin Sloper, Washington Square

Henry James's Washington Square tells the story of Catherine Sloper, a cripplingly shy woman who lives with her widowed father, Dr. Austin Sloper, and his flighty sister, Lavinia Penniman. Viewed by everyone as lacking personality, it's a big surprise when handsome, charming Morris Townsend takes an interest in her after meeting her at a party. Within weeks, they are saying they love each other and even consider getting engaged. Dr. Sloper thinks there is something not quite right about this match. After all, what kind of man would actually be attracted to such a dull girl?

Originally written in 1880, it was brought to the stage by Ruth and Augustus Goetz and retitled The Heiress in 1947. Two years later, it was made into a movie with the play's title starring Olivia de Havilland. It was adapted to film again under the original title in 1997 starring Jennifer Jason Leigh. There was also a brief Broadway revival of the play in 1995 starring Cherry Jones (who won a Tony for the leading role), and another from 2012 to 2013 with Jessica Chastain in the leading role.

A strongly character-driven, subversive story that plays with a lot of love and romance tropes of its time and even now, its resolution stands out.

The book contains examples of:

  • Break the Cutie: A double-whammy for Catherine. The first one comes from her father during their stay in Europe; when she tells him she still plans to marry Morris, he gives a speech lathed with sarcasm, comparing her to a mindless animal whose "value is twice as great" after her experiences abroad, ending it with "We have fattened the sheep before he kills it!" Then Morris—after finding out that Catherine will not be as rich as expected— turns his inner Jerkass up to eleven hoping it will turn her off him, and when that fails, he cruelly dumps her and runs off to California.
  • Broken Bird: Catherine turns into this after being betrayed by Morris and disapproved of by her father.
  • The Charmer: Even Dr. Sloper admits that Morris is very charming, though he sees it as an act.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Dr. Sloper—most of his dialog with Catherine is nothing but snark.
  • The Ditz: Aunt Penniman, no doubt!
  • Engagement Challenge: Not so challenging as other examples, but Dr. Sloper takes Catherine away with him to Europe for six months to test their relationship, reasoning that if Morris really loved Catherine and not her money, he would be willing to wait for her. He was willing to wait, but he didn't love her.
  • Foil: Marian Almond, Catherine's cousin, who is extroverted, conventional, and gets married at her earliest convenience. Note that this is a non-antagonistic example, as Marian was the closest thing Catherine had to a friend growing up and they are still somewhat close at the time of the story.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Morris proposes to Catherine after only a couple of days.
  • Genre Savvy: Aunt Penniman's meddling in Catherine's life is her deliberately playing the role of The Matchmaker in a lot of romance stories. Deep down, she is perfectly aware of what is really going on, but doesn't let it get in the way of her foolish romantic delusions.
  • Gold Digger: Dr. Sloper assumes correctly that Morris is just after Catherine's money. Dr. Sloper himself could be accused of being one, but he was always adamant that he married his late wife for love and that he earned everything he had.
  • The Hedonist: Morris actually inherited a decent amount of money at some point before the beginning of the story; however, he squandered it completely on hedonistic ventures. Even his sister reluctantly admitted during her "interview" with Dr. Sloper that he had used none of his inheritance to help her or her five children.
  • I Have No Daughter: Feeling that there is nothing more he can do to keep Morris and Catherine apart, he completely disinherits his daughter, leaving his $30,000 estate to various organizations. Catherine still gets $10,000 a year from her mother... but that's not enough for Morris.
  • Jerkass: Dr. Sloper, Aunt Penniman, Morris—basically everyone but Catherine has their moments.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Aunt Penniman highly overestimates her social intelligence and matchmaking skills. Dr. Sloper comes off this way, too, but it turns out not to be the case.
  • Like a Son to Me: Aunt Penniman never tells him this directly, but she does think to herself that if she and her late husband had been able to have children, they would have had a son not unlike Morris. This could be a factor in her Shipper on Deck tendencies, as it was not uncommon for cousins—especially in a wealthy family— to marry in the 19th century.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Catherine.
  • Love at First Sight: Seems to be this for Catherine and Morris at first.
  • Love Will Lead You Back: Subverted. Catherine starts off feeling this way about Morris, but soon comes to terms with the fact that she had been exploited, and when he does return twenty years later, she has no longer has any interest in him.
  • Maiden Aunt: Aunt Penniman is a widow, but she never sought out another man after the death of Rev. Penniman, and is content living her romantic fantasies through her niece and Morris.
  • Master of None: Catherine was trained in a variety of skills as a child, including singing and the piano, but as an adult she has no particular talent in any of them except embroidery.
  • Misery Builds Character: Implicit in the story—the heartbreak Catherine suffers due to the people around her forces her to stand on her own two feet and not depend on the love and approval of others to be happy. Otherwise, it's likely she may very well have remained an awkward, "dull" wallflower forever.
  • Missing Mom: Catherine's mother died shortly after she was born.
  • Na├»ve Everygirl: A major part of the story is Catherine maturing out of this trope.
  • Old Maid: A bit of subtext in the story is the other characters' belief that due to Catherine's shyness and "dullness", she will never find a man and will end up a spinster. When the story skips ahead 20 years, it concludes with Catherine at age 40, unmarried, and childless. However, Catherine willingly chose never to marry, and is perfectly content with her life and comfortable in her own skin in a way that she never was as a younger woman when she had to worry about pleasing her father or fulfilling social obligations of courtship and marriage.
  • Only Sane Woman: Mrs. Almond, Dr. Sloper's other sister, who is the most reasonable person in the story by a long shot. She thinks her brother's handling of the Morris situation and treatment of Catherine in general are needlessly cruel while at the same disagreeing with Aunt Penniman's meddling, guessing correctly that Morris is a Gold Digger.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Dr. Sloper tries to pull this on Catherine during the entirety of their relationship, even threatening to disinherit her. (Though he likely considers her an Inadequate Inheritor anyway.)
  • The Place: Washington Square.
  • Plain Jane: Catherine, and while she never has a Beautiful All Along moment, the narrator and other characters describe that she has the kind of looks that would be better suited to a 40 year old than a 20 year old, making this perhaps a delayed version of She's All Grown Up.
  • Promotion to Parent: Mrs. Montgomery, Morris's older sister who more or less raised him after the death of their parents.
  • Purple Prose/ Wall of Text: Being a work of Henry James, practically the modern Trope Codifier, the language can be purplish and hard to grasp at times. Incidentally, contemporaries praised the book for being more straightforward in comparison to his other books.
  • Resentful Guardian: Dr. Sloper, while never crossing over into being a fully Abusive Parent, clearly resents having someone like Catherine in his care.
  • Self-Made Man: Dr. Sloper may have married the wealthy Catherine Harrington, but he worked his way up to where he is at the beginning of the story, eventually tripling his late wife's estate.
  • Shipper on Deck: Aunt Penniman, arguably a Deconstruction of this type of character as her obsession with getting Catherine and Morris together is treated as unhealthy.
  • Shrinking Violet: Catherine, to the point where every time she asserts herself seems like a Moment of Awesome.
  • Silly Rabbit, Romance Is for Kids!: By the end of the story, Catherine seems to have this view, at least for herself. She had turned down several dates and marriage proposals in the years after her father died, and when Morris asks her why she never married (assuming she was waiting for him to come back), she explicity states that there was no reason for her to.
  • Unable to Support a Wife: Another of the good doctor's reasons for dissaproving of Morris being with his daughter: he has no job or any real motivation to get one, and the way he wasted the little money he had makes him wonder what he would do with Catherine's fortune.
  • The Un-Favourite: Catherine is this to her father, in comparison to her older brother... who died several years before she was born and doesn't appear to have lived long enough to be named.
  • Well Done Daughter Girl: Catherine begins the story desperate for her father's approval.
  • Why Couldn't You Be Different?: Dr. Sloper not-so-secretly despises his daughter—she's not even a shadow of her beautiful clever mother in his eyes. Not only that, but she is The Unfavorite compared to her brother who died before she was even born! In his heart he probably feels she should have died instead.
  • Will They or Won't They?: They don't—Morris comes to see her when they are both approaching middle-age after failing to hit it big in the west. Catherine says that she does not hate him, but has no interest in having any kind of relationship, with him or anyone.