Doctor Austin Sloper is among Henry James' most complex characters. Certainly, he treats his daughter, Catherine, harshly. But Dr. Sloper's clever mind and admittedly accurate criticism of Catherine's suitor, Morris Townsend, make it difficult to write the doctor off as a simple villain. Throughout the novel, Dr. Sloper becomes a largely symbolic father figure. Even in his interactions with his two sisters, Lavinia Penniman and Elizabeth Almond, Dr. Sloper often neglects to credit these two (adult) individuals with their due respect. Dr. Sloper is a great man of society, a local celebrity in Washington Square. Because Dr. Sloper is so renowned, because Dr. Sloper is so intelligent - and especially because Dr. Sloper knows both of these facts so well - the contrast between his highs and lows is significant. A famous doctor, Sloper cannot save his wife or son from death once they take ill. And Sloper's celebrity is of little use in swaying Catherine to obey his wishes. When it counts most - in his family - the doctor's skills are judged and are found wanting.
Catherine is the heroine of the novel and for most of the novel, Catherine is surrounded by dominating individuals who seek to make decisions for her. As a young girl and even as a young woman, Catherine finds herself unable to live up to her father's paradigm of what a good daughter would be. It is not at all difficult for Catherine to be "good," but Dr. Sloper would prefer a daughter who was "clever" and for all of Aunt Penniman's instruction, Catherine has remained not-so-clever in her father's eyes. As the novel progresses, Catherine discovers that she is intelligent and she gains the courage to defy her father. Between Morris Townsend's betrayal and her father's cruelty, Catherine gets more than her fair share of suffering.
Lavinia is one of Dr. Sloper's two younger sisters. The widow of a penniless clergyman, the eccentric and overly dramatic Lavinia comes to live with Dr. Sloper and his daughter Catherine not long after Dr. Sloper becomes a widower. Aunt Penniman functions as Catherine's mother and when Catherine reaches late adolescence, Aunt Penniman beings entertaining notions of Catherine meeting a young man and embarking upon some form of romantic adventure. Catherine is not at all romantic but Aunt Penniman works hard to bring Morris Townsend and Catherine together. In the face of many good and rational reasons why Morris and Catherine do not belong together, Lavinia hopefully persists. She even waits 17 years for another chance to bring the two former lovers back together again. All efforts fail. Despite her meddlesome inquisitiveness and her unwillingness to accept reality, Aunt Penniman remains an individual with only good intentions.
Morris is a young man who has blown into town, having been around the world and blow his own small fortune in a mater of a few years. Morris is a distant cousin of Arthur Townsend and Arthur is marrying Marian Almond (Catherine's cousin). We soon learn that Morris is not intentionally hurtful, but he is irredeemably selfish. He lives off his impoverished widowed sister, Mrs. Montgomery, because he refuses to work. Morris intends to marry Catherine and enjoy her fortune, but when Dr. Sloper makes it clear that he will disinherit Catherine (should she marry Morris), Morris has no alternative but to abandon Catherine. He flees to Philadelphia. Nearly twenty years later, Dr. Sloper goes to his deathbed believing that Catherine intends to marry Morris. Shortly after Dr. Sloper dies, Morris returns to Catherine hoping to court her. She rejects him outright.
Mrs. Elizabeth Almond
Mrs. Almond is Catherine's "Aunt Almond" and Dr. Sloper's favorite of his two sisters. Unlike Lavinia, Elizabeth has a rational temperament. At the same time, she is kind and sympathetic towards Catherine, especially when it becomes clear that Morris has less than noble reasons for becoming engaged to Catherine. Because Dr. Sloper disregards Catherine's feelings, Elizabeth criticizes him as "shockingly cold-hearted."
Morris Townsend's sister. Mrs. Montgomery is a widow with a very small income, though she maintains a respectable and tidy home. Morris lives with her and regularly borrows money. Morris also tutors her five children in Spanish, as a means of earning his keep. Dr. Sloper visits Mrs. Montgomery when Morris is not there and pressures her to admit that her brother (Morris) is selfish and that Catherine would be happier in the long run if she did not marry Morris.
Elizabeth Almond's daughter. She marries Arthur Townsend, a stockbroker. Catherine and Morris first meet at Marian's engagement party.
a distant cousin of Morris Townsend, he marries Marian Almond. Arthur is an ambitious and respectable stockbroker who typifies New York's commercial spirit. Arthur is an industrious young man, very much unlike Morris, who apparently comes from the bad side of the Townsend family. Arthur accompanies Morris on his first visits to the parlor of the Sloper home.
Mrs. Catherine Harrington Sloper
As a young, wealthy socialite, Catherine married Austin Sloper, a respectable young physician whose intellect and promise forgave his lack of inherited wealth. Catherine gave birth to a son who died at an early age; a few years later, she died soon after giving birth to her daughter, Catherine. Dr. Sloper remembers his wife as a uniquely intelligent and beautiful woman; he mourns the perceived lack of these same qualities in his daughter.
Washington Square Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Washington Square is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.