Washington Square

Washington Square Study Guide

First serialized in Harper's Magazine in 1880, Washington Square is one of Henry James' most famous (and most accessible) novels. In 1881, Washington Square was published in novel form‹the same year that Portrait of a Lady was published. Unlike much of Henry James' work (for example, Daisy Miller or The Ambassadors), Washington Square is a thoroughly American novel: the characters are American as is the setting. Indeed, Washington Square is the neighborhood in which Henry James was born. The novel focuses on a particular American neighborhood during a precise historical period. Nonetheless, the fact remains that Henry James did not write Washington Square from the standpoint of a New Yorker who was a resident of an old historic neighborhood. Henry James was living in London at the time‹but he wrote the story while in Paris. In terms of context, it is imperative to situate Washington Square as a thoroughly American book that is deliberately written from a distance.

If the reader does the math, it is not difficult to roughly figure out when Dr. Sloper was born and married, and when Catherine was born and when she became engaged. Most of the novel's drama occurs during the early 1840s, when Dr. Sloper is around fifty years old and Catherine is about twenty years old. By the end of the novel, and Dr. Sloper's death, it is the early 1850s. Civil war has erupted, but this does not prohibit Catherine from saying: "I like surprises. And it is so quiet now." Henry James and his heroine are both well-removed form the real world of actual events. Just as Henry James has removed himself from American politics and society, his characters operate within a bubble. This novel is about Washington Square, but it is surprisingly insulated from larger national themes.

The argument has been made on both sides that such insularity is quintessentially American and un-American, an expression of liberty or privacy. What is beyond dispute is that this novel does take great pains to illustrate "Old New York" a society that was beginning to undergo serious change by the early 1880s. When James returns to the United States in the early 1900s, he returns to his childhood neighborhood and finds that so much has departed. In the confusion of immigration, industrialization and commercialization, many of the old homes and social circles of Washington Square had disappeared. In his travel narrative, The American Scene, first published in 1905, James recounts that his birth-house (the house in which he was born) had been destroyed. Historical accounts indicate that a shirt factory stood in place of the house! Clearly Washington Square demonstrates that this neighborhood and James' sense of personal private history was very important. Just as Catherine becomes an expert on old customs and a guardian of the past, Henry James seeks to document the old customs of "Old New York" in this work.