Washington Square

Washington Square Summary and Analysis of Chapters 17-20

Chapter 17 Summary:

Later that evening, Aunt Lavinia sat with Catherine and recounted her meeting with Morris. Catherine is upset that Aunt Lavinia has gone to see Morris and she is also bothered by the fact that Aunt Lavinia has gone to a far off place, as if she were engaged in secret dealings. Catherine exasperates Lavinia, for she appears disinterested in the details of the conversation. Lavinia chastises her niece for being cold and dry. Catherine responds that she would prefer that Aunt Lavinia hold no more meetings with Morris. Aunt Lavinia feels insulted and she calls Catherine ungrateful and thankless. She says that she will not interfere with Catherine's affairs, adding that Catherine is too fearful of her father.

Chapter 18 Summary:

Catherine is bothered by the intensity of her heated exchange with Aunt Lavinia. In seeing her aunt's childishness, Catherine feels rather old and grave, herself. Catherine decides to speak to her father. She tells Dr. Sloper that she would like to see Morris again, not to say good-bye, but because she would like to see him. Dr. Sloper asks if Catherine intends to marry Morris, and he hugs and holds Catherine in a rather forceful way. Catherine refuses to commit to her father's position. He asks her not to believe him but to take his words on trust. In reply, Catherine wants to know precisely what Dr. Sloper holds against Morris.

Dr. Sloper argues that if Catherine refuses to break off her engagement she has severed ties with her father. She will have to wait for him to die, if she expects to marry without his adamant disapproval. This horrifies Catherine. As Catherine bursts into tears, her unenviable position is made crystal clear by the Doctor's cruel words. He calls Catherine ungrateful and impertinent. He refuses to allow Morris to ever speak to him again - thereby insulating himself from the possibility of change. He tells Catherine that she will inherit none of his money if she marries against his will. Catherine is not bothered by this and says that she wouldn't feel entitled to the Doctor's money. He laughs and invites Catherine to tell this to Morris and witness the wretchedness of the young man's reply. Catherine sobs and when she reaches towards her father for mercy, he turns her away, directs her towards the doorway, and shuts her out. She remains at his door for several moments and then leaves. Half-amused, half-irritated, the Doctor considers the real possibility of Catherine sticking to her position. He didn't think she had it in her.

Chapter 19 Summary:

The next day, Dr. Sloper has a conversation with Lavinia, warning her to stay out of Catherine's relationship with Morris. Anything that Lavinia does to advance such a relationship would be counted as "high treason." Lavinia says that Dr. Sloper is too harsh and that his cruelty will kill Catherine. When Sloper sarcastically replies that he is a distinguished physician, capable of preserving his daughter's health, his sister curtly reminds him that his being a distinguished physician has not prevented him from already losing two members of his family (his son and his wife).

Lavinia already knows that Sloper has been cruel to Catherine for she was waiting on the landing of the stairs the night previous. When Catherine left the doctor's study, sobbing, Aunt Lavinia was waiting there to console her. Aunt Lavinia is baffled when Catherine wakes after her dreadful night and intends to continue life as if nothing has happened. Aunt Lavinia argues that Catherine ought to remain in bed and make Dr. Sloper feel guilty. Catherine intends to work even harder to be a good daughter, in the hopes that her obedience might move the doctor. Catherine is impressed with her ability to be strong and solid and dense, and she feels sure that she will live to a great age - though at moments like this, such a prospect seems more like a cure than a blessing.

Chapter 20 Summary:

Catherine sees Morris the following day and he asks her whether she has made up her mind. She simply wants more time for things to resolve themselves. Morris tells Catherine that she must love her father more than she loves him. Morris tells Catherine that Mrs. Penniman has suggested an immediate union, and Catherine dismisses this idea. Catherine tells Morris that Dr. Sloper will disinherit Catherine from his fortune and Morris tells Catherine to tell Dr. Sloper that such a move will do nothing to affect Morris' affection for Catherine. Catherine is not worried about the money; she is worried about living with her father's disapproval. Nonetheless, she tells Morris that she will marry him as soon as he pleases.

Analysis of Chapters 17-20:

Lavinia confronts Catherine with the information that she has gathered in her interview with Morris, though Lavinia's interference does more harm than good. Catherine perceives Lavinia's intelligence gathering as an indicator of a lack of trust. Either Morris does not trust her, or Morris must perceive that she does not trust him. Lavinia makes things more complicated with her question "are you jealous of me?" Catherine is not exactly jealous but she is certainly concerned by the coziness that Lavinia shares with Morris. Lavinia uses guilt much as Doctor Sloper does, as a means of influencing Catherine to do what is best. Here, it seems that Catherine is rejecting Lavinia's advice and guidance in obedience to her father, but it is not as simple as that. Catherine is willing to obey her father's warning not to see Morris, but she has no intention of breaking the engagement.

In Chapter 18, Catherine again returns to the doctor's study and there is again, an exchange of rhetoric and heated language. The doctor has been caught unawares, yet again, and this seems to be part of Catherine's "terrible plan." She has spent a considerable amount of time thinking about what she will say, and this time, the doctor faces more resistance than he previously had. He gives a vague warning about how dangerous a man like Morris can prove, and he interprets Catherine's disagreement as an attack on his wisdom. The narrator relays the doctor's "ingenious sophism": "I don't ask you to believe it, but to take it on trust." The doctor wants Catherine to stop thinking for herself, to cede her liberty. Catherine does not impolitely point to the logical flaws of the doctor's language, but the narrator does. Sloper was once praised for his witty "epigrams." Now the narrator tells us that the doctor's logic is no good. Catherine does not address the logical failure, but she does meet "the appeal none the less squarely," we are told. The doctor suggests that Catherine and Morris, if engaged, would be placed in the position of waiting for the doctor to die so that they could be married - implying that one or both of the young lovers might find motive to hasten the doctor towards his final destination. Catherine replies that "If I don't marry before your death, I will not after." The narrator tells us that the doctor takes this "epigram" by "surprise" because "obstinacy, in unaccomplished minds, does not usually select such a mode of expression." The doctor does not realize that Catherine is more clever than he thinks; he decides that she is being impertinent.

The themes of inheritance and filial duty (within the context of father and daughter) resonate with Shakespeare's tragic King Lear. The doctor's language alludes to the play, with his threats of never forgiving Catherine. The doctor essentially threatens to disown Catherine, write her out of his will. Catherine gives "a cry of natural horror" at the prospect of losing her father, but after Chapter 14, we have been prepared for the doctor's casual discussion of such horrible themes. It is nothing for him to speak of ripping apart his family; it is this very casual and presumptive demeanor that causes this "natural horror" to occur. Of course, the symbolic shutting of the study door makes it clear that there will be no reconciliation between father and daughter. Sloper sees the drama as a form of "entertainment" but "comical," even though he thinks that Catherine will remain obstinate. It is unclear what entertainment, besides verbal jousting, the doctor will uncover. He is unaware of the pain that he causes his family, and so this does not dampen his excitement. Entertainment is not the word that comes to mind when one has just referred to his only daughter as "an ungrateful, cruel child" - if she should marry the wrong man. Catherine is on her way towards becoming this child and giving her father "the greatest pain of his life." Or, at least, this is what the doctor says. What Sloper does not perceive his own vulnerabilities. He speaks of this "greatest pain" as a threat that he inflicts upon Catherine: He pains Catherine by suggesting that she might cause him pain. He does not realize that, in fact, he can and will suffer great pain by the end of the novel.

Our respect for Catherine is by no means derived exclusively from the narrator's compliments: the fact that Catherine matches the doctor's poor logic with her own epigrams serves not to credit Catherine but to discredit the doctor. The doctor measures himself by epigrams - he is beaten at his own game. Catherine measures herself by goodness, honesty, devotion. The doctor's warning, that Catherine "will be an ungrateful, cruel child" seems so absurd. Just as King Lear misperceived his true daughter as a false and treacherous daughter, Sloper maligns a daughter who loves him very much. Catherine will not become a child to suit the doctor, and she will never learn to be ungrateful or cruel. But at the doctor's own insistence, Catherine will learn to respect and love him less.

Dr. Sloper confronts Lavinia, his own sister, in Chapter 19, and he warns her that "high treason is a capital offense. Take care how you incur the penalty." Lavinia's response, that Sloper sounds like a "great autocrat" confirms the allusion to King Lear - a man gone mad, insane with thoughts of conspiracy, distrust, and betrayal. It is as if Dr. Sloper is intentionally destroying his family bonds. He perceives himself so different from Lavinia that he wonders whether he is her brother - and he tells her as much. In an especially brutal scene, Sloper suggests that if Catherine takes ill from her melancholy, he is a distinguished physician capable of restoring her health. Lavinia pauses, then replies that the doctor has already lost two members of his family - Sloper's own response confirming that he may still lose another. The image of the "surgeon's lancet" (surgical knife) is used to describe the cutting "terribly incisive look" that the doctor gives his sister. There is great irony in the doctor being the principal destructive force of the novel. Whatever Morris' plans may be, the doctor's over-exaggerations and tyrannical suppression make it impossible for Morris to reveal himself. And it is likely that Morris would prove not nearly as bad as the doctor predicted.

Lavinia's words, of course, suggest that Catherine might die of grief. The narrator prevents this idea from taking root: it is just another one of Lavinia's imaginative fancies. Catherine wakes up strong as ever - though for effect, she should perhaps pretend to be ill and wounded (according to her aunt). Catherine's heart is breaking, but she is "strong and solid and dense." What is foreshadowed is the fact that Catherine "would live to a great age - longer than might be generally convenient." The irony here is that Catherine is strong enough to live a life of suffering. She faces the impossible task of reconciling an impossible father with a less-than-decent fiancé.