Thursday, 18 April 2019

A personal reflection on Catherine Sloper

Henry James seems to like to skip and jump in time. I twice wrote about that in The Portrait of a Lady
In Washington Square, Dr Sloper brings Catherine to Europe. Then Henry James skips 6 months. They have a talk. Then he skips another 6 months. 
Don’t you feel a bit cheated? 
But let’s talk about something else. Look at the conversation between Catherine and Morris before the trip: 
““Should you like to see all those celebrated things over there?”
“Oh no, Morris!” said Catherine, quite deprecatingly.
“Gracious Heaven, what a dull woman!” Morris exclaimed to himself.” (Ch.23) 
What a dull woman indeed. Maybe I’m biased because I like Europe and travel, and like “those celebrated things”. After all, I’m already biased against Catherine Sloper because “She confessed that she was not particularly fond of literature” (Ch.6). 
On the trip: 
“It was idle to attempt to ascertain the state of her affections without direct inquiry, because, if she had not had an expressive manner among the familiar influences of home, she failed to gather animation from the mountains of Switzerland or the monuments of Italy.  She was always her father’s docile and reasonable associate—going through their sight-seeing in deferential silence, never complaining of fatigue, always ready to start at the hour he had appointed over-night, making no foolish criticisms and indulging in no refinements of appreciation.  “She is about as intelligent as the bundle of shawls,” the Doctor said; her main superiority being that while the bundle of shawls sometimes got lost, or tumbled out of the carriage, Catherine was always at her post, and had a firm and ample seat.” (Ch.24) 
I suspect I will change when the characters are revealed or when Catherine changes later in the book, but at the moment, if you look at the matter from Dr Sloper’s point of view, isn’t it disappointing that a brilliant parent has such an unexceptional, dull, commonplace child? Goodness is good, but a bore is still a bore, no? 
Not only so, this is when Catherine starts to become frustrating: 
“He stopped in front of her and stood looking at her, with eyes that had kept the light of the flushing snow-summits on which they had just been fixed.  Then, abruptly, in a low tone, he asked her an unexpected question:
“Have you given him up?”
The question was unexpected, but Catherine was only superficially unprepared.
“No, father!” she answered.
He looked at her again for some moments, without speaking.
“Does he write to you?” he asked.
“Yes—about twice a month.” 
The Doctor looked up and down the valley, swinging his stick; then he said to her, in the same low tone:
“I am very angry.”
She wondered what he meant—whether he wished to frighten her.” (ibid.) 
And then: 
“She could not think why he told her these things.  Had he brought her there on purpose, and was it part of a plan?” (ibid.) 
Is she dumb? 
The problem now (which is my problem rather than the problem of the book) is that I can’t help seeing Catherine as similar to an ex-friend of mine—let’s call her Rosy for convenience. Rosy is honest and hardworking but very dull, unambitious, not very knowledgeable, interested in very few things, and not passionate about anything; she can neither talk about any subject in depth, nor do small talk. Because she is quiet, some people think she’s introverted and deep, but she’s partly shy and reserved, partly inarticulate and dull. Also because she is quiet and never openly objects to people or disagrees with people, some people think she’s meek and obedient, but she can be extremely obstinate, obstinate to the point of madness. She doesn’t argue because she lacks the eloquence to express herself, but once she has set her mind on something, she’s impossible to reason with. Her way of rebellion is quietly doing whatever she likes, the way she likes it, behind people’s back. 
All that intolerable tediousness and maddening obstinacy of Rosy, I can now see in Catherine. 
The difference between the 2 is that Catherine is compassionate, or so I’m told. I was friends with Rosy not for conversation, not for common interests, as there were none. Other than circumstances, I was friends with her because of her honesty, good nature, hard work, self-respect, and sense of dignity, and that she’s good at her job. It took me some time to see her unreasonable obstinacy. It took me longer, but at last I realised that she had no depth of feeling—she harms nobody, and makes sure that she doesn’t owe anyone in terms of money, but beyond that, she doesn’t particularly care about people or do anything for others, and has little sense of gratitude. 
When I’m starting to see Catherine as Rosy, I also see Washington Square in a different light.

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