Washington Square

Washington Square Summary and Analysis of Chapters 6-10

Chapter 6 Summary:

Soon after Morris' exit, Lavinia has a conversation with her brother, Dr. Sloper. The doctor does not seem particularly excited about the young man and he tells Lavinia to have Morris see him the next time Morris visits the house. Lavinia orchestrates events such that Morris' next visit occurs while Dr. Sloper is not at home. Lavinia does not join Morris and Catherine in the parlor, and so Morris has ample opportunity to charm Catherine - and this is precisely what he does.

Dr. Sloper teases his daughter, rather cruelly, asking her if Morris has proposed yet. Catherine remains stupefied for a few blank seconds. During this brief instant, Dr. Sloper confirms to himself that his daughter is "not brilliant" - but Catherine then replies, with a laugh: "Perhaps he will do it the next time." Dr. Sloper wonders whether Catherine is serious, and he begins asking his two sisters for more information on Morris Townsend. Dr. Sloper's discussion with Mrs. Almond centers largely on Lavinia's role in bringing Morris into Catherine's life. From Mrs. Almond, Dr. Sloper also learns that "There are Townsends and there are Townsends": Arthur's branch of the family is high-achieving, but Morris, a distant cousin, comes from a line of ne'er-do-well Townsends. Indeed, Morris has already been wild and extravagant, exhausting the sum of his pittance of an inheritance.

When Dr. Sloper disparages his own daughter, Mrs. Almond comes to Catherine's defense and insists that Sloper is too critical, too harsh in his examinations of his daughter. Both Dr. Sloper and Mrs. Almond agree that Morris is not the most savory of characters. Apparently, he does not simply live with his sister (Mrs. Montgomery); rather, he lives upon her.

Chapter 7 Summary:

Dr. Sloper, for all of his interrogations, was not even slightly tense or apprehensive. Sloper did not hold Morris' poverty against him and he was willing to give the young man the benefit of the doubt, for the time being, at least. Dr. Sloper invites Morris to dinner, sending this message through Lavinia. Of course, Morris is very charming at the dinner table, but it is clear that Dr. Sloper and Morris will not get along. Later in the evening, Morris confides to Catherine that he is convinced that her father does not approve. This is a tragedy for Morris, because he rather enjoys the wine and amenities of Sloper's house. Indeed, Dr. Sloper's "cellarful of good liquor" is just the sort of thing that Morris looks for in a father-in-law.

To Catherine, Morris expresses his best attempt at heart-felt concern over the issue. Tactically, Morris begins suggesting to Catherine that the time may come when her own father stands between the two lovers. Morris is disappointed to learn from Catherine that she never contradicts her father. Indeed, she tries very hard to be a good daughter. Morris reflects that Mrs. Penniman's assistance will be vital.

When Dr. Sloper discusses Morris with his sister, Mrs. Almond, he admits that Morris has superficial good qualities but that he will not do as a son-in-law. Mrs. Almond expresses concern that Dr. Sloper does not see Morris the way that Catherine does - and that it is Catherine's impression of Morris that is of real concern. Dr. Sloper replies that he will present Catherine "with a pair of spectacles" - he intends to have Catherine come around to his point of view.

Chapter 8 Summary:

If Catherine is in love, she remains very quiet about it. Dr. Sloper talks to his sister, Mrs. Penniman, about the burgeoning and rather rapidly-developing relationship between Catherine and Morris. It is clear, however, that Dr. Sloper is fishing for details. Furthermore, the Doctor's pride won't permit him to at least pretend to like Morris, as a way of getting more information from Lavinia. Indeed, it is already clear that Lavinia stands as Morris' advocate (she argues that the young man has had misfortunes) - and Dr. Sloper stands in a defensive mode. Dr. Sloper suggests that Morris is not interested in Catherine because Catherine is a dull girl. Lavinia defends her niece and she is quite outraged when Dr. Sloper, in one fell swoop, maligns Morris (perhaps justly) and Catherine (quite unjustly): Lavinia exclaims that Morris has been searching hard for a job; Dr. Sloper's rejoinder is that: "The position of husband of a weak-minded woman with a large fortune would suit him to perfection!" Insulted, Lavinia leaves the room.

Chapter 9 Summary:

Catherine, Dr. Sloper and Lavinia traditionally visited the Almond residence every Sunday evening and, this Sunday, they follow tradition. Dr. Sloper sees that Morris is at the Almond house (which makes sense as he is soon to be part of the family). Dr. Sloper thinks about his emerging triangle with his daughter and her beau. He is convinced that Catherine would defend him against (rhetorical, emotional) attack from Morris. Dr. Sloper finds time to have a private conversation with Morris, during which he mentions the young man's lack of profession and means. Morris, quite smooth, purposefully misinterprets Dr. Sloper's words as an offer of assistance. Sloper is inwardly enraged, but immediately reflecting, he realizes that his words as phrased, could be easily misinterpreted. Sloper admits that he has no offer of assistance at the moment, but he suggests that Morris might find something elsewhere, away from New York (and away from Sloper's daughter). Morris has family in New York and he tutors his nieces and nephews. Sloper tells Morris that he will keep the young man in mind, offering a veiled threat: "I won't lose sight of you."

Before leaving, Dr. Sloper asks his sister, Mrs. Almond, to arrange for him to have a talk with Mrs. Montgomery, Morris' sister. Dr. Sloper and Mrs. Almond hit upon the idea of meeting the children and getting a sense of Morris' tutoring skills. This could be some form of indication of the young man's worth. Morris has a conversation with Catherine, during which he relates the tension and unpleasantness of the interview with Dr. Sloper. Just as Dr. Sloper predicted, Catherine is sure that Morris simply misinterpreted her father's remarks. Morris argues that he has been insulted and taunted with the fact of his poverty. Morris' pride has been wounded and as a result, he will not enter Sloper's home again. Catherine rejects this idea, and insists that Morris come to the house to visit her again. Morris' idea was a romantic stroll through the square, and Mrs. Penniman is bewildered by Catherine's rather strange and unromantic move.

Chapter 10 Summary:

Morris visits Catherine the very next day and Mrs. Penniman is pleased. She has developed a fondness for Morris and she delights in drama of all sorts. She loves to think and imagine every possible option and how each option will play itself out. The intrigues of romance, then, mark some of the happiest days in the widowed life of this well-meaning but far-too-meddlesome Aunt. Morris kisses Catherine for the first time and Catherine treats this as a certitude. Catherine only now allows herself to become convinced that Morris is actually interested in her. Catherine decides, after some days, that she and Morris should confront her father. Catherine says that she will explain the situation to her father, first, and Morris should speak to him the next day. Morris tells Catherine that Dr. Sloper will malign the young man as "mercenary," but Catherine is not interested in the money-politics of marriage. Her logic is that she will still have plenty of money, that it is good to be rich and that Morris should not be upset about the prospect of having money. Morris asks Catherine is she will "cleave" to him and marry him even if her father forbids it. Catherine simply says "Ah, Morris!" and places her hand in his. Morris takes this as a yes.

Analysis of Chapters 6-10:

Dr. Sloper's teasing of Catherine serves both to inform us of his character (he is no kind fatherly doctor) as well as to establish suspense. Sloper jokes of a marriage between Catherine and Morris but such a prospect becomes in the end the central drama of the novel. Dr. Sloper's self-serving jokes and insults, a sort of hubris (excessive condemnable pride), blind him to reality until it is too late for him to do anything meaningful. He thinks he knows all, already; he loses the opportunity to gain new knowledge.

Henry James was interested in the strategies that people use to define themselves and categorize others. His novels are heavy with conversation and interior monologue. Language and rhetoric are weapons and structures here. We see this in novels like The Ambassadors and Portrait of a Lady, and it is certainly true in Washington Square, as well. There is conflict, drama, and loss - but only words are used to destroy or support others, and these activities of language are made explicit. The narrator describes a scene during which Catherine listens to the "exchange of epigrams" between her father and her Aunt Lavinia. (An epigram is a short witty remark or poem - it comes for the Greek root of the word inscription). What we realize is that Catherine perceives herself as not witty enough to join in the conversations - even though she is the subject of discussion. In the next scene, when Morris asks Catherine to "tell me about yourself; give me a little sketch" the narrator explains that "Catherine had very little to tell, and she had no talent for sketching." What we find later on, is that Catherine really does have these talents: self-awareness, communication, and courage. Unfortunately, she has adopted her father's opinion of herself (one of his choice phrases is "dumb eloquence") as fact.

This novel is very much about deception and truth. Self-presentation and advertising are very important here. It is vital that Morris charms Aunt Lavinia so that he can win Catherine's heart and money. Dr. Sloper considers himself too intelligent to fall for Morris' charms. As a doctor and an academic (an anatomist) he compliments Morris' bone structure and physique. Morris is handsome. But Dr. Sloper sees through the man and cuts right to the bone. Morris' assets are exclusively physical. He has good genes but a poor family. He is a handsome charmer but he is no gentleman. Dr. Sloper says that he will present Catherine "with a pair of spectacles," using this image as a symbol of truth and understanding. Dr. Sloper cannot imagine that others have a different view. He presumes that others fail to see and that, if they see clearly, they will view the matter as he does.

Lavinia is charmed by Morris' language - perhaps this is the sort of detail we would expect in a novel (writers like words). Lavinia sees Morris as "a young man of great force of character" - not for bravery, compassion, or economic success but for his "remarkable powers of satire." She sees him as "imperious" because "she liked the word and the idea." There is a bit of understatement when Lavinia changes her mind, deciding that Morris is "imperial" rather than imperious and that he is "the sort of husband [she] should have had!" He is like an emperor and she is like an emperor's wife, which is to say: an empress. This explains quite a bit about Lavinia's meddlesome nature, and we can expect more meddling in the later chapters. In Chapter 10, for example, Aunt Lavinia delights in "drama" and she combines "the zeal of the promoter with the impatience of the spectator." Hilariously, the narrator notes that at certain points Lavinia forgets all about Catherine ("there were times when she lost sight altogether of the modest heroine of the play") because she was busy thinking about her own non-romantic relationship with Morris ("the contemplation of certain great scenes which would naturally occur between the hero and herself"). Lavinia wants to be "the confidante, the chorus, to speak the epilogue" - the narrative structure suggests that Lavinia is perhaps the chorus, but little else. Lavinia can stir things up, but she proves incapable of pulling things off.

Like Lavinia, Catherine sees Morris as "solemnly beautiful." He makes "her think of a young knight in a poem." But Catherine is awkward around Morris; she is not as gung-ho in regards to romance. At the end of Chapter 9, Catherine rejects the overtly romantic option ("a sentimental tryst beside a fountain") and prefers to meet Morris in the parlor. When Lavinia learns of this, she is "lost in wonderment at the oddity - almost the perversity - of the choice." Lavinia is a romantic; Morris is a creator of romantic effects - but Catherine seems to view the romantic as an offense to her father and to her ideas of modesty. Perhaps most significant, we'll learn that truth and honor are very important to Catherine and she is unwilling to create a scene or "effects" for the purpose of stimulating emotions of interest, guilt, or fear. And anything secret or secluded is something she immediately holds suspect.

The motif of language and literature is further complicated by the idea of "imagination." On the one hand, Catherine is "not fond of literature" and Morris agrees that "books were tiresome things." Books are inaccurate and it is important that one "sees for himself." This is certainly more complex than it appears on surface. Here, Henry James is reminding us of how subjective any story is. We are being warned not to adopt the Doctor's advice or the narrator's prejudices. On the other hand, we see Lavinia, a woman of great imaginative power. Her imagination illuminates every possibility - whether plausible or unlikely. "She is like a revolving lighthouse - pitch darkness alternating with a dazzling brilliancy," according to her brother. Lavinia's imagination surveys the field: she gives us a catalog of possibilities - but she is unable to focus upon the likely or desirable among these options. Trust her to map the field, yes; but her advice is lousy (she'll admit as much, later in the novel).

The narrative voice in these chapters is compromised in a very special way: on one hand, we are told of the doctor's stature and opinions. We see that even Catherine has resigned herself to Sloper's tyranny. At the same time, we are given evidence - little hints - that Sloper's order will come undone. At a certain point in the novel, once Catherine has (despite all odds) asserted herself, we'll find that the narrative voice defends and protects her and reduces the doctor. The lesson we learn in the end is the power of language to frame others. In Chapter 10, Morris remembers that "fortune favors the brave." At the very least, one must speak up, one must ask if he is to have any hope of getting what he wants.