Washington Square

Washington Square Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-5

Chapter 1 Summary:

The story begins in Manhattan in the early 1800s. A young man named Austin Sloper has made a name for himself as a medical doctor. He is extremely intelligent and a man of high reputation. It is Austin Sloper's good fortune to marry Catherine Harrington, a very wealthy young woman. Sloper is not independently wealthy, but his practice is growing and he is a man who is held in high regard - all the more so because he continues to work assiduously despite his new-found wealth. Sloper's first child is a boy, who dies at the age of three. After the birth of Sloper's second child, a girl, Sloper's wife takes ill and dies. The daughter is named Catherine, after her mother, but in Dr. Sloper's eyes, young Catherine lacks all the grace, intelligence, and beauty of her mother.

Chapter 2 Summary:

When Catherine is ten years old, Dr. Sloper invites his sister, Mrs. Penniman, to stay with him. Dr. Sloper has two sisters, Mrs. Penniman and Mrs. Almond, and they are quite different. Mrs. Penniman (Lavinia) is a widow, once married to a poor clergyman. Mrs. Almond (Elizabeth - we learn this later in the novel) is married to a prosperous merchant and she has several children. Lavinia is alone. Also, Mrs. Almond is less imaginative and impractical than Lavinia is. Mrs. Penniman and Dr. Sloper eventually came to an unspoken agreement, by which she remained in her brother's house and took charge of Catherine's education and development into a young woman of refinement. Dr. Sloper has been disappointed with Catherine since her birth; he considers the young girl dull, boring, and unintelligent. Mrs. Penniman sees more in Catherine than Catherine's father does - but Dr. Sloper is lord of the manor and highly effective in stamping his impressions of Catherine upon Catherine's psyche. He considers her dull, and so she remains passive - evidence of her dullness. He considers her not-very-clever, and so she remains quiet - evidence of what she is not.

Still, Catherine is "good," at least. Dr. Sloper is not proud of his daughter, but she is not inferior - simply "commonplace."

Chapter 3 Summary:

As Catherine matures into adolescence and then, past the age of sixteen, her entry into Society becomes an issue of real importance. Here, Dr. Sloper is embarrassed because of Catherine's somewhat extravagant and vulgar taste in party dresses. Her dresses are approved by all except Dr. Sloper. And it is precisely Dr. Sloper's opinion that matters most to Catherine. Dr. Sloper lives in the Washington Square neighborhood in Manhattan, and he has a well-defined code of values and taste. His worry is that Catherine's dresses are simply too expensive. Catherine goes some time without setting her eye on a particular beau. On the other hand, one of Mrs. Almond's daughters marries "very punctually" and the other is engaged just as quickly.

Chapter 4 Summary:

Mrs. Penniman has clearly had a good amount of influence on Catherine. As Mrs. Penniman is not Dr. Sloper's favorite sister, it is no surprise that Dr. Sloper is not entirely thrilled with Mrs. Penniman's finished product - still, Dr. Sloper has not expected very much to come of Catherine, so it is no great loss. Mrs. Almond gives a party, celebrating the engagement of one of her daughters to a stockbroker. Mr. Townsend, a member of the stockbroker's family, attends the party and expresses a healthy interest in Catherine. Mr. Townsend grew up in New York, but he has been traveling for a great time and has only recently returned home. Catherine finds him stunning, dashing, gorgeous and it is clear that if there will not be romance between the two, there will be something.

Aunt Lavinia finds the opportunity to have a very detailed conversation with Mr. Townsend and she is excited about the prospects of a romance. In the carriage home, Dr. Sloper applies his interrogative pressure, but he finds that Aunt Lavinia's excitement is matched - for intensity - in Catherine's detached silence. Even when Aunt Lavinia asks Catherine for the young man's name, Catherine replies, "I don't know."

Chapter 5 Summary:

A few days later, Mr. Townsend (Morris) and his cousin, the stockbroker engaged to Mrs. Almond's daughter, come to visit the Sloper residence in Washington Square. This is largely the result of Aunt Lavinia's suggestion to Morris, that he come and visit Catherine. On this first visit, however, Arthur (Morris' cousin) spends most of his time speaking to Catherine, while Morris spends his time charming Aunt Lavinia. Aunt Lavinia has a powerful imagination and Morris is a wonderful object for her to think on. Indeed, it seems that she has already made up her mind that Morris should marry Catherine. Aunt Lavinia serves as an intermediary between the two young people - she has Morris' biographical information and Catherine's as well. It is from Lavinia that Catherine and Morris have learned much of what they know of each other. Apparently, Morris does not have a father and he lives with his sister and her children. He has been searching for employment but he has not been able to find a job. Morris will return to the Sloper home again, having been invited by Aunt Lavinia. Catherine blushes in disbelief; she cannot imagine why a man as charming and brilliant as Morris would be interested in a girl as plain as she is.

Analysis of Chapters 1-5:

Washington Square is one of the few works by Henry James that focuses on American characters in an American setting. James was already living in London when he wrote the work, but he actually wrote Washington Square in Paris. The significance here is that James is writing about Washington Square from his childhood memory. The "impressions" that he credits to Catherine Sloper are his own. The theme of civic nostalgia and Old New York is one that returns in some of James' late works.

In these early chapters we meet the main characters of this short novel: Dr. Sloper, his daughter, Catherine; Dr. Sloper's two sisters: Mrs. Almond and Mrs. Penniman, and Catherine's eventual suitor, Morris Townsend. The novel is not all that suspenseful; the characters are so delimited and so precise, that it is not very hard to predict the outcome of events.

Morris Townsend is described as beautiful, dashing, an "actor." He is already foreshadowed as a fake.

Dr. Sloper on the other hand, is a figure of great irony. His work is medicine, and yet he is rather cruel. He is a public celebrity, but a private terror. He saves lives - but his wife and son are dead. In Dr. Sloper we would expect the very pinnacle of goodness. His name, Sloper, suggests a downfall, a let-down, a disappointment. Sloper is disappointed in his daughter. The reader is disappointed in Sloper because of his disappointment. It is not long before we realize that Sloper's criticism of Catherine is unduly harsh. Catherine may not be a genius, but there is no evidence that Catherine is "dull." If there is any suspense in the novel, it comes in finding out precisely who Catherine is. We know that she is not the person her father sees, but it is only later, that Catherine defines herself for us.

Sloper's two sisters, Elizabeth Almond and Lavinia Penniman, are unalike. Throughout the novel, Elizabeth plays the role of "foil" to Lavinia, who is a major character. Lavinia is defined by her imagination - a contrast to both of her siblings. Elizabeth proves to be level-headed and compassionate. Dr. Sloper is on the opposite extreme: he is rational and cold-hearted. Ultimately, it is Aunt Almond who forges a meaningful relationship with Catherine.

Finally, Washington Square is a novel that describes Catherine's coming of age. As such, the concerns of youth, parenting, and education are central. We learn a lot about Dr. Sloper in his instructions to Aunt Penniman, for she is to mold Catherine into a clever person, rather than a good person. Throughout the novel, Dr. Sloper makes it clear that he believes himself to be most clever, and that he most values cleverness in others. Catherine, on the other hand, strives to be good. Ultimately, she becomes disillusioned with her father. In the interim, Dr. Sloper's methods of conversation, investigation, and education of his own family develop into a metaphor for overbearing tyrannical government. The narrator's insistent praise of Dr. Sloper as a good doctor and a fine gentleman rings hollow later in the novel.