“The aesthetics of Henry James in essence, isn’t it? Non-visual, non-sensual. Just mental, minds on their own, minds engaged with other minds.”That is the art of Washington Square—there isn’t much description, it’s all about the battle of minds, 4 minds.
I’m near the end of the book. A lot of the mental battle in Washington Square is in resistance—Dr Austin Sloper, once he makes a judgment, clings to it and refuses to be persuaded; Catherine too holds her ground and doesn’t budge an inch; Morris Townsend tries different tactics and persists for some time, but loses the game because he can’t last longer. I can’t help noting that the doctor doesn’t seem to realise how similar he and his daughter are—he calls Catherine obstinate, but so is he.
Morris is, without doubt, a fortune hunter—he’s after big money, not just money but big money. The question is whether he cares about Catherine at all or is only after the money. It does show though, that in a way he seems to know Catherine better than her father, when he says that she isn’t a weak woman. Morris’s main weapon is his charm and power of manipulation—it is lost on Dr Sloper, and over time, he gives up because he’s not content with only a part of the fortune.
Austin Sloper’s main weapon is his money. He wins in the battle with Morris, because of Morris’s greed and, I suppose, wounded pride; but loses in the war with Catherine, because she doesn’t care. Of the 4 minds in Washington Square, hers is the only one that changes, expands, and develops over time—she comes to see all the other people for what they are, and resists, or takes revenge on, each of them in her own way. Throughout the story, everyone including the readers misunderstand her and underestimate her, but because Catherine is dull and inexperienced doesn’t mean that she has no power of perception. People think that because she is dutiful and doesn’t openly object to her father, she must be subservient, but Catherine has self-respect and a sense of dignity. Because of dignity, she doesn’t yield.
Her reservation and silence becomes her weapon, and her revenge.
“We know that she had been deeply and incurably wounded, but the Doctor had no means of knowing it. He was certainly curious about it, and would have given a good deal to discover the exact truth; but it was his punishment that he never knew—his punishment, I mean, for the abuse of sarcasm in his relations with his daughter. There was a good deal of effective sarcasm in her keeping him in the dark, and the rest of the world conspired with her, in this sense, to be sarcastic.” (Ch.32)As she is silent and betrays nothing, he has no means to know how she feels, and he can’t be sure that Morris isn’t hiding somewhere and waiting for him to die.
“Mrs. Penniman told him nothing, partly because he never questioned her—he made too light of Mrs. Penniman for that—and partly because she flattered herself that a tormenting reserve, and a serene profession of ignorance, would avenge her for his theory that she had meddled in the matter. He went two or three times to see Mrs. Montgomery, but Mrs. Montgomery had nothing to impart. She simply knew that her brother’s engagement was broken off, and now that Miss Sloper was out of danger she preferred not to bear witness in any way against Morris. […] Mrs. Almond had, in her sister’s phrase, “taken up” Catherine violently since the recent catastrophe; but though the girl was very grateful to her for her kindness, she revealed no secrets, and the good lady could give the Doctor no satisfaction. Even, however, had she been able to narrate to him the private history of his daughter’s unhappy love affair, it would have given her a certain comfort to leave him in ignorance; for Mrs. Almond was at this time not altogether in sympathy with her brother.” (ibid.)(Mrs Almond is Dr Sloper’s other sister, someone who should be Catherine’s mother figure, instead of Mrs Penniman).
Catherine is also silent to Mrs Penniman. Since she starts to see through aunt Lavinia, she doesn’t confide in her but still has a certain respect, but it’s all gone when she discovers that the aunt has been even more involved than she realised. She keeps everything to herself, and never satisfies the meddlesome woman’s curiosity.
On the other side, the aunt too is silent:
“… she remained quite the same officious and imaginative Mrs. Penniman, and the odd mixture of impetuosity and circumspection, that we have hitherto known. As regards one point, however, her circumspection prevailed, and she must be given due credit for it. For upwards of seventeen years she never mentioned Morris Townsend’s name to her niece. Catherine was grateful to her, but this consistent silence, so little in accord with her aunt’s character, gave her a certain alarm, and she could never wholly rid herself of a suspicion that Mrs. Penniman sometimes had news of him.” (ibid.)I have written about the silences in The Portrait of a Lady. Henry James writes about things people say, as well as things people leave unsaid. However, if the silences in The Portrait of a Lady show either calculation, or the inability to express oneself, a lot of the silences at the beginning of Washington Square show Catherine’s inarticulateness and reservation*, but later on, silence is a means of resistance, and a proof of mental strength.
Azar Nafisi wrote a nice analysis of the book in Reading Lolita in Tehran:
“Only Catherine has the capacity to change and mature, although here, as in so many of James’s novels, our heroine pays a dear price for this change. And she does take a form of revenge on both her father and her suitor: she refuses to give in to them. In the end, she has her triumph.Washington Square is a great book.
If we can call it that. One can believe James’s claim to an “imagination of disaster”; so many of his protagonists are unhappy in the end, and yet he gives them an aura of victory. It is because these characters depend to such a high degree on their own sense of integrity that for them, victory has nothing to do with happiness. It has more to do with a settling within oneself, a movement inward that makes them whole. Their reward is not happiness—a word that is central in Austen’s novels but is seldom used in James’s universe. What James’s characters gain is self-respect…”
I prefer it to The Portrait of a Lady, or maybe I’m just more used to Henry James.
*: Note all the moments the characters pause before they speak, or think something without speaking.
The best moment of silence in Washington Square is this one, at the end of the European trip, when Dr Sloper and Catherine are on the way back to New York:
““Three days before will do,” he went on, “if you are in a position to be positive then. [Morris] ought to be very thankful to me, do you know. I have done a mighty good thing for him in taking you abroad; your value is twice as great, with all the knowledge and taste that you have acquired. A year ago, you were perhaps a little limited—a little rustic; but now you have seen everything, and appreciated everything, and you will be a most entertaining companion. We have fattened the sheep for him before he kills it!” Catherine turned away, and stood staring at the blank door. “Go to bed,” said her father; “and, as we don’t go aboard till noon, you may sleep late. We shall probably have a most uncomfortable voyage.””(my emphasis)
Just like that, the chapter ends. This is the turning point for Catherine—when she realises that her father has always despised her and never loved her. James doesn’t need to say how she feels. His style is always economical, but he says enough.