Washington Square

Washington Square Summary and Analysis of Chapters 21-26

Chapter 21 Summary:

Dr. Sloper visits his sister, Mrs. Almond, and tells her his suspicion. He thinks that Catherine will drag out the engagement with the intention of making the doctor relent. Of course, he has no intention of doing so. Mrs. Almond finds her brother "shockingly cold-blooded," and he seems to take it as a sort of compliment. He takes a pleasure in Catherine - who has surprised him. Mrs. Almond sees that Catherine is in unbearable pain, but Dr. Sloper is more interested in figuring out what Catherine will do. Dr. Sloper mentions the idea of taking Catherine to Europe for a vacation, but Mrs. Almond is sure that Catherine will not forget Morris in Europe. Dr. Sloper replies that Morris may forget Catherine, while she is in Europe.

Mrs. Penniman sees Morris, who has tired of her. He gives her rather curt answers though he is not explicitly rude or impolite. Penniman admits that her advice is not always the best, for her imagination gets in the way. She is no good at determining the right thing to do, but she is very good at uncovering the infinitude of possible things one may do. Contradicting her earlier advice, Mrs. Penniman now tells Morris to bid his time and wait. Morris says that Catherine has committed to taking the "great step." Mrs. Penniman then consoles Morris by saying that whether he rushes forward or takes his time, Catherine's love for Morris is such that she will continue to hold him high regard.

Chapter 22 Summary:

Catherine has consented to something though she had not consented to anything precise. A wedding day had not yet been determined. Morris tried to figure out whether it would be better to marry Catherine and forego her father's money, or wait to marry Catherine and perhaps marry into a larger fortune. Or, perhaps Morris would be best served by seeking another union. Morris wants to find a shortcut, an easy way to solve his situation.

For her part, Catherine feels guilty that she remains in her father's house. From her point-of-view, it is unjust for her to remain in her father's house if she does not intend to obey his law.

In conversation with her father, Catherine tells him that she intends to marry before very long, and the next day, Dr. Sloper presents Catherine with the six-month trip to Europe, telling her to postpone the wedding for the half year. Catherine tells her father she will need to consult Morris, and Dr. Sloper gives a diplomatic reply. At the end of the conversation, Catherine tells Dr. Sloper that if she lives with him, she ought to obey him. To this, Sloper assents. But he is struck, he fears he has underestimated his daughter when she continues that if she doesn't obey him, she ought not live with him - implying that she will soon take leave. Dr. Sloper says that this idea is in "very bad taste," and asks whether Morris has told Catherine to say this. Learning that this is Catherine's own opinion, the doctor tells her: "keep it to yourself, then." He realizes that he'd better get Catherine to Europe in a hurry.

Chapter 23 Summary:

Neither Morris Townsend nor Mrs. Penniman were invited to join Dr. Sloper and Catherine. Mrs. Almond thought it was cruel for Dr. Sloper not to include Lavinia, but she realized that it was Lavinia's own folly that produced this consequence. Catherine tells Aunt Lavinia that she hesitates to take the trip because she does not want to mislead her father into thinking that it will change her mind. Both Aunt Lavinia and Morris concur that Catherine ought to take the trip, though Catherine feels that it would be deception. Mrs. Penniman tells Catherine that she should buy wedding clothes in Paris and she promises her niece that she will look after Morris while Catherine and the doctor are away.

Dr. Sloper and Catherine are gone for a year, rather than the six months initially stated. Mrs. Penniman remained in Sloper's house and played the role of hostess rather well. Morris takes advantage of this situation and essentially transforms the house into his own private club. Mrs. Almond feels compelled to say something to Mrs. Penniman regarding her close relations with Morris. Lavinia feels all the more attached to Morris, for they are both rather rejected by Dr. Sloper. Mrs. Penniman reasons that if Morris won't enjoy Dr. Sloper's fortune later, he might as well enjoy it now.

Chapter 24 Summary:

For the first six months of the trip, Dr. Sloper refuses to speak about Morris and the engagement. He spends his time enjoying the sights of Europe. He assesses Catherine's level of intellectual engagement with the sights and scenes and finds his daughter wanting. Catherine continues to receive letters from Morris at the rate of two per month - bundled within the envelopes she receives from Aunt Lavinia. One day, towards the end of summer, the doctor and his daughter were trekking through the Alps. In a rather precarious mountain pass, Dr. Sloper mentions the engagement - out of nowhere, it seems.

Catherine is a bit surprised but as her answer has not changed there is no hesitation in responding to the startling question. Dr. Sloper becomes visibly irritated, enraged really. Catherine tells her gather that Morris still writes to her twice a month and that she intends to marry him. Dr. Sloper tells Catherine that he is "not a very good man" and that he "can be very hard." He asks Catherine whether she would like to be left to starve in such a place as this.

Catherine is somewhat concerned as to whether her father intends to do her harm. Though Catherine dismisses the idea, she does take a few steps back. Sloper makes his way back to the carriage and leaves Catherine to do her best to catch up with him. Climbing the difficult uphill terrain, now in the unwelcome dark of night, Catherine does her best to keep up, and when she arrives at the carriage, her father is already inside waiting for her.

They continue traveling for another six months and after this period, Sloper poses his question anew. Catherine replies that she still intends to marry Morris and that he still writes her twice a month. Sloper asks when Catherine plans to be married, and she says that she cannot give a precise date. Dr. Sloper asks for three days' notice.

Chapter 25 Summary:

The voyage home to New York is uncomfortable and upon reaching the shore, Catherine returns to her father's house and does not go off with Morris. That night she speaks with Aunt Lavinia who says that she has spent much time with Morris and come to know him very well - indeed, she knows him better than Catherine does. Catherine is somewhat bothered by this but she does not think about it for very long. She thanks Aunt Lavinia for being very kind to Morris, but when Aunt Lavinia tells Catherine that Morris enjoyed cigars in Dr. Sloper's study, Catherine is upset. Morris, of course, had the sense not to mention the extent to which he enjoyed Dr. Sloper's house, knowing that it would offend Catherine. Aunt Lavinia, on the other hand, lacks such tact.

Aunt Lavinia shares that Morris found employment as a commission merchant, quite suddenly, about a week ago. Catherine is more than pleased and she is happy to know that Morris is an equal with his business partner. Catherine has come with gifts for Aunt Lavinia, and Aunt Lavinia is especially pleased with the cashmere shawl.

Aunt Lavinia asks Catherine if she has changed and she asks if Dr. Sloper has changed. Catherine explains that she is braver now and she does not try to please her father, nor does she expect that he will change his mind. Catherine adds that if Morris does not care for the double inheritance, then why should she - besides, with Morris' new business, they will have plenty of money. Aunt Lavinia says that "perhaps he [Morris] does care" for the money, but Catherine says that if Morris cares about the money, he simply cares about it for Catherine's sake.

Aunt Lavinia now seems to stress the importance of convincing Dr. Sloper and getting the full inheritance. Catherine is irritated because this is quite the opposite of Aunt Lavinia's earlier suggestions. Catherine wonders whether Aunt Lavinia now has some new idea or new piece of information. Aunt Lavinia can't help being shocked by the force of Catherine's insistence.

Chapter 26 Summary:

When Morris arrives the next afternoon, he feels somewhat wronged: he is used to enjoying Dr. Sloper's study, but now he must resign himself to the front parlor. Catherine is very happy to see Morris and he looks as beautiful as she remembered - if not more so. She tells Morris that she is ready to get married and that they must simply do without the approval of the father. To this, Morris expresses his dismay and says that he has been beaten. He wants Catherine's permission to confront Dr. Sloper and try to change his mind. Catherine feels secure, however, that between her maternal inheritance and Morris' business prospects, they will have plenty of money.

Morris insists that he should try to make things right with Dr. Sloper, and when Catherine explains that it will do no good because Dr. Sloper is not very fond of her, Morris realizes that he has lost his chance. In keeping her engagement to Morris, Catherine has lost her father's blessing. Certainly, Morris will not be able to get anything from Dr. Sloper if Sloper detests Morris so much that Sloper now detests his own daughter because of her attachment to Morris. Morris has trouble hiding his displeasure. Catherine pleads with Morris that he must always love her and never despise her. Although Morris doesn't despise Catherine, he doesn't like her very much either - and love is entirely off of the table. Catherine expresses a hope that she and Morris will be very happy together.

Analysis of Chapters 21-26:

The opening scene of Chapter 21 attests to Mrs. Almond's increasing disgust towards her brother. She finds him cruel and "cold hearted." This fact is supported by Lavinia's own confession to Morris, that she did not regard her brother "as an orthodox Christian," referring to his potentially "violent" nature. There is no pretending that Austin is a cruel man who effectively distances himself from the other characters. Sloper's decision to take the tour of Europe is a fact that has escaped Lavinia's imagination: still, she rebounds with a somewhat twisted consolation - she tells Morris that the possibilities are "infinite." Lavinia's poor counsel was a motif in earlier chapters, but the stakes are raised now. Morris begins to perceive the danger of relying too heavily upon Lavinia's words. While Dr. Sloper and Catherine are in Europe, Lavinia becomes closer to Morris: she realizes that if Dr. Sloper disinherits Catherine, it won't be towards a goal of enlarging Lavinia's share. She becomes more "treasonous" putting Morris' desires above obligations to family. When Mrs. Almond accurately perceives that Morris is not a good husband for Catherine, Lavinia dismisses the idea. Lavinia has fallen in love with Morris, it would seem. Ironically, she forgets that her own niece will actually have to marry the man. Lavinia seems to simply want an arrangement that will keep Morris in her own life. This is tragic - pathetic and abusive at the same time. Lavinia seems to be condemned to enjoying only vicarious pleasures - she is not one of the lovers, nor is she one of the travelers. The image of the house as a symbol of the hearth, the family, of connectedness is undone while Dr. Sloper is around. Consistently, the warmth of the fire is used as an opposite image. At least three times, we are told that Dr. Sloper is as cold as the fire is warm. Lavinia has been abandoned by her brother and her niece has left as well. Lavinia repopulates the empty house with Morris and other guests, much as she commits "treason" and protects the interests of others before the interests of family. In Chapter 25, Lavinia greets Catherine, who has returned home. Catherine is somewhat perturbed by Lavinia's accounts of the time that she has spent with Morris. Now, Lavinia presumes to know Morris better than Catherine does herself.

In an earlier chapter, we found the epigram "fortune favors the brave." In Chapter 22, the narrator tells us that "Providence was more especially on the side of clever people, and clever people were known by an indisposition to risk their bones." Both of these comments refer to Morris, a man who is both active and passive. Active, he is willing to take risks and impose himself upon others. Passive, he relies upon others to do the most difficult tasks and depends upon fortune or Providence to make sure that things work out. The narrator's voice of irony shows Morris to be a low creature. He regards Catherine as "unattractive" and potentially "impoverished." Morris is the knight-hero in the images that he sells to Lavinia and Catherine. But in the middle of the novel, once things begin to go awry, Morris sounds more like a character from a Jane Austen novel: in his attempts to win a fortune through marriage (a gender-role reversal, here) Morris catches a snag. The fact that Dr. Sloper will disinherit Catherine makes Morris' decision more difficult. Like Dr. Sloper, Morris hopes that "mathematics" will lead him to a "shortcut" around the "natural way" to resolve his situation. He does not want to marry Catherine without a guarantee that he will come into all of her wealth - including that which the Doctor presently threatens to withhold. Dr. Sloper reduces the conflict to "geometry." Both he and Morris hope that to think their way through. Neither man proves competent enough to fully execute his task.

The motif of law is further developed beyond the images of tyranny and treason. Catherine has come under a curse and even Morris regards her position as pitiable, for Catherine feels that she has "broken a sacred law." Catherine has a very developed sense of moral judgment as she exhibits at the end of Chapter 22. This scene is a continuation of the earlier "study" scenes. Dr. Sloper wants to take Catherine to Europe as a means of separating her from Morris. Catherine, takes her father's language literally, and believes that she is separated from him (her father). She admits that "If I live with you, I ought to obey you" and the doctor's half-mocking agreement is turned on its head when Catherine continues: "But if I don't obey you, I ought not to live with you - to enjoy your kindness and protection." Catherine would rather leave the house of the tyrant than commit treason. This is the logical extension of the doctor's own words - but this is a tactical disadvantage. A tyrant needs a subject. The doctor would not be satisfied with Catherine leaving the house; he wants her to submit to his rule. He has a "sudden sense of having underestimated his daughter" and he insults her idea as "very bad taste" and tells her to "keep it to [her]self." While Dr. Sloper is in Europe, his study becomes a sort of sanctuary for Morris, who visits regularly while Sloper is away.

This is a critical point in the novel. Catherine has liberated herself from the doctor's ideas. She has followed his logic to its conclusion, and when the doctor rejects his own logic, Catherine has little reason to hold the doctor's arguments in high regard. She is now "absolved" because she has followed duty. The trip to Europe is a waste of time and money, if the goal is to make Catherine forget Morris. Catherine feels that it would be deceptive to accompany her father on the trip when she has no intention of changing her mind about Morris. Catherine's combination of honesty and strength leads her to the conclusion that she ought to tell her father that his strategy is a failing one, so perhaps he ought to reconsider. Of course, after six months of travel, Catherine confirms that she is resolute. When the doctor extends the trip, there is no change in Catherine's decision. By the time she comes home, Catherine ahs given up any hope of converting her father and she has decided to sacrifice her inheritance and marry Morris anyway. As can be expected, this plan meets with considerable opposition from Morris and Aunt Lavinia, for they have been counting on the fact of Dr. Sloper's fortune eventually going to Catherine. The use of understatement at the end of Chapter 26 essentially reveals Catherine's fate. Morris will "never despise" her but he will not try to do anything more difficult. Needless to say, he will not marry Catherine.