Washington Square

Washington Square Summary and Analysis of Chapters 31-35

Chapter 31 Summary:

Aunt Lavinia advises Catherine that if Dr. Sloper should ask whether the marriage was still on, she should say that it is. A few days later, Catherine received a long letter from Morris, addressed from Philadelphia. He formally apologizes and says that he does not want to endanger Catherine's prospects, and so, the wedding is off. Catherine thinks that the letter is hollow and false. Years later, she re-reads the letter and sees that it was very gracefully written, though a lie all the same.

After the letter arrives, a week passes and Dr. Sloper asks Catherine for an update on the wedding. Catherine simply replies that she has not yet left the house. Dr. Sloper says that he is looking forward to the wedding because then he will have an empty house: Aunt Lavinia leaves with Catherine. Catherine tells Dr. Sloper that she has broken off the engagement, having asked him to leave New York. Spitefully, Dr. Sloper tells Catherine that she is rather cruel, after encouraging the young man and playing with him for so long.

Chapter 32 Summary:

Dr. Sloper remains cold and heartless and Catherine becomes close to her Aunt Almond. Mrs. Almond is not sympathetic towards Dr. Sloper and ultimately, she is rather disgusted. Dr. Sloper looks at Catherine and sees that she is patient - though she has been hurt, Dr. Sloper cannot see this. He begins to think that Catherine and Morris have simply postponed their engagement and they are content to wait until Dr. Sloper's death. Catherine has a number of suitors but she never pursues a relationship with any of them. These suitors find Catherine genuinely appealing and, unlike Morris, they are wise enough to avoid Mrs. Penniman (who had become rather famous for her meddlesome ways). On a few occasions there is news that Morris is in town, but Catherine makes no mention of this fact, nor does she seem excited, nor does she make any attempt to see him. Dr. Sloper remains in the dark and he is irritated that there seems to be a conspiracy of silence. Neither Mrs. Almond nor Mrs. Penniman nor Catherine is an available source of information. All three women find Dr. Sloper rather contemptible.

Chapter 33 Summary:

Dr. Sloper retires from his profession and he sees that his death is coming soon. He takes a trip to Europe and brings Mrs. Penniman and Catherine along. He asks Catherine to promise him that she will not marry Morris Townsend after he dies. Catherine tells her father that she very seldom thinks about Morris, but she refuses to make this promise. Dr. Sloper says that he is altering his will and he calls Catherine obstinate. She tells him that he doesn't understand. When Dr. Sloper asks for an explanation, Catherine replies that she can't explain and she can't promise. Dr. Sloper admits that he had no idea how obstinate Catherine was.

A year later, Dr. Sloper has a violent cold and he dies three weeks later. His will promised money to Mrs. Penniman and Mrs. Almond but it reduced Catherine's share to one-fifth of what it was, as she had plenty of money left to her by her mother. Sloper's will mentions that Catherine has given the doctor reason to believe that she regards unscrupulous men as an interesting class (i.e. Morris Townsend). Aunt Lavinia says that the will should be broken at once, for Sloper has left Catherine's money to a number of hospitals and medical schools. Catherine disagrees and says that she likes the will very much, only she would have expressed it a little differently.

Chapters 34 and 35 Summaries:

Catherine intends to remain in the house and this is what she does. She has created a life that she enjoys - the younger men and women look upon her fondly as an aunt, of sorts. She fills her free time with social events, entertainment, and knitting. Her repose is shaken when Aunt Lavinia tells Catherine that she has seen Morris Townsend. Catherine begins to cry, though Aunt Lavinia does not realize this. Catherine is quite displeased. Always the meddler, Aunt Lavinia convinces Morris to visit the house, and Catherine is enraged when she realizes this, but by then it is too late. Aunt Lavinia has disclosed this fact right as Morris has arrived at the house. Morris has the same old voice, but he has lost the old charm. His life has been hard and he has been a failure in love and in business. Catherine tells Morris, rather firmly, that it is impossible for them to be friends. She tells him not to come again. Morris says that she has done him an injustice - for he has simply waited for Catherine to be free, and now she is. Catherine tells Morris that he has treated her badly, and that she still has friendly feelings towards him and has forgiven him. However, she has no intention of reviving any passion or emotion for him. All of her passion and emotional capacity have been destroyed between the cruelty of Morris and Dr. Sloper.

When Morris presses further, Catherine tells him that had he waited for an answer, he would not have bothered to come and visit the house. Had she been given time to respond, Catherine would have sent word through Aunt Lavinia telling Morris that he need not have come. Morris leaves, and upon exiting, he asks Aunt Lavinia why Catherine has never married - he had assumed that it was on his account. They are both perplexed.

Meanwhile, Catherine has already resumed her seat in the parlor, dry, steel, unshakable, concentrating on her knitting and fancywork - "for life, as it were."

Analysis of Chapters 31-35:

The final chapters bring a resolution of the plot action. Catherine go insane, commit suicide, or die of heartbreak (all popular conclusions to the story of the "jilted" lover), but she is certainly scarred from her experience. She rejects all other suitors, including a few eligible bachelors. And when Morris returns after nearly twenty years of failed adventures in love and business, Catherine rejects Morris. Dr. Sloper goes to the grave confident that Catherine intends to marry Morris and enjoy her inheritance as well. Catherine's rejection of Morris confirms the doctor's failure to accurately understand his own daughter.

Catherine emerges as a heroine in the final chapters. James describes her as a "conservative" woman who quickly becomes matronly. She acts older than her age - much unlike Aunt Penniman, who seems to grow younger and ever immature. Catherine becomes a guardian of local history and old customs. As a parallel to Dr. Sloper at the beginning of the novel, Catherine is now the character principally attached to Washington Square. Dr. Sloper symbolized the neighborhood at its height. Catherine represents "Old New York" society as it enters its sunset.

The name "Sloper" connotes this very slope and decline. Certainly, Sloper is an opposite image to "Excelsior," the motto of New York which means "ever upward." Dr. Sloper has divided his family and his family line ends with Catherine. The final chapters of the novel depict Dr. Sloper's personal decline with an ironic tone. A doctor famed for his intelligence, Sloper dies from the cold that he catches when he visits a patient at the Bloomingdale Lunatic Asylum. James simply refers to the hospital as "Bloomingdale" and it was famous. This death also marks the end of a motif of "cold" imagery surrounding the doctor. Indoors, the doctor's cold eyes and cold-hearted nature played a contrast to the fireplace, the hearth and the images of family and emotional fulfillment. Here we find the doctor dying of a chill in the middle of Spring, the season of life and new beginning. Even the name of the hospital, Bloomingdale, presents an image of life, not death. For a very great man, Dr. Sloper has died a rather small death.