Washington Square

Washington Square Themes

Family and Betrayal

Betrayal is perhaps the most dominant theme of the novel. Some characters fear betrayal, others astonished to find themselves betrayed. If we look at the four major characters of the novel, we find betrayals ranging from failed expectations to deliberately broken promises. In some cases, the over-sensitive individual perceives a betrayal when no true betrayal has actually occurred.

Dr. Sloper feels betrayed by Catherine, because she is unwilling to follow his advice regarding her engagement to Morris. Dr. Sloper uses exceedingly harsh language and vows to disown Catherine for breaking his heart. Sloper's behavior likens him to Shakespeare's King Lear, a similarly paranoid father who causes great harm to innocent people. Dr. Sloper's efforts to circumvent Catherine's perceived betrayal actually push Catherine to limit the deference and respect she gives her father. Dr. Sloper becomes so hostile that he pushes Catherine towards the very betrayal of which he accused her.

Dr. Sloper has been betrayed by his family. His wife and son have died and left him. Indeed, the reader should recall that after Catherine was born, her mother "betrayed alarming symptoms" even though she had been in good health. This has been a betrayal of expectations. Catherine has similarly betrayed Dr. Sloper because she is plain and ordinary - she is no daughter of his. Dr. Sloper goes so far as to accuse his sister Lavinia of "treason" because she advocates for Catherine and Morris' wedding despite Dr. Sloper's most strenuous objections. Dr. Sloper's betrayals have come from his family, then. Ironically, Dr. Sloper does not seem to value family bonds, for he interrogates Mrs. Montgomery with the intention of provoking her to betray her own brother, Morris. The novel tells us explicitly that Dr. Sloper takes special pleasure in the fact that Mrs. Montgomery's confession has come at the dear price of her "family pride."

Dr. Sloper has done all of this on Catherine's behalf. Despite his cruelty, Dr. Sloper is correct in predicting that Morris will prove himself a man of low character and low means. The most dramatic betrayal of the novel is Morris' abandonment of Catherine, after Catherine has sacrificed so much for Morris' sake. This is not the traditional story of unrequited love because Morris' original intentions were always mercenary and Catherine had to struggle to convince herself to fall in love with Morris. Catherine is also somewhat betrayed by Lavinia. In one sense, Aunt Lavinia has painted the picture of romance and led Catherine into a pit of thorns. Catherine has suffered on account of her aunt's very poor counsel. Perhaps more significant, Lavinia is working on Morris' behalf as well as Catherine's. Indeed, Lavinia comes to see Morris as a son, though she also harbors thoughts of Morris being the sort of "imperious" man that she ought to have mattered. Lavinia does not place her family obligations as foremost and principal. She has created a fictitious family with Morris and, to be honest, Lavinia looks out for Morris' interests more than she looks out for Catherine's. Lavinia realizes that Catherine will be hurt by Morris' abandonment, but Lavinia is so enthralled with Morris that she fails to chastise him or even perceive the true extent of the young man's depravity.

Morris feels betrayed by Lavinia. Towards the end of the novel, Dr. Sloper warns Lavinia that Morris will become angry with her when he realizes that he is simply a "deluded fortune-hunter." Just as Lavinia has pushed Catherine into a romantic engagement, Lavinia has lured Morris into a financial prospect that has soured.

Home and Domesticity

Home is a symbol of tradition, of culture, of family and the past. Washington Square is a residential neighborhood, a community of homes, in contrast to other areas of Manhattan. And Washington Square is the neighborhood where Henry James was born and spent his first years. Much of the narrative action of Washington Square occurs within the walls of the Sloper home.

One of the principal images connected to the idea of home is the image of the fireplace - the hearth. The hearth is a source of warmth and a venue for communal activities (the fireside). In ancient Greek literature, the hearth is connected to ancestors and guardian deities. Indeed, James mentions that when Dr. Sloper moves up from the City Hall area to he "moved his household gods uptown, as they say in New York" with him - in a figurative sense. These are memories, mementos, family heirlooms, inheritance, etc in the literal sense.

Certainly, we must consider Dr. Sloper's lack of "family feeling." More than once, the doctor is described as cold or cool, cruel or unemotional. And more than once, this cool/cold imagery is described in direct opposition to the loving warmth of the fireplace. Catherine cannot find warmth in her father's eyes, so she focuses on the fireplace.

In Chapter 31, Dr. Sloper suspects that Morris has abandoned Catherine. Prying for information, Sloper wants to know when the wedding will take place, adding: "It would be a convenience to me to know when I may expect to have an empty houseŠ.When you go, your aunt marches." Given that a house is built to contain (to house) a family, the lack of usage is an odd convenience. Instead of an empty house, however, Sloper gets no physical escape from his family. Lavinia and Catherine are very disconnected from Austin, but the house remains the center of the novel's drama - nobody ever moves away. Catherine never leaves home, never gets married, never starts a family of her own. Even when Morris was courting Catherine, Catherine was reluctant to meet for romantic trysts in far-off or secluded locations. Her "unromantic," almost "perverse" choice was to host her beau in her father's parlor.

While she lives in her father's house, Catherine must struggle to deal with his law. The home is like a small society in which Dr. Sloper considers himself a patriarch, an enlightened despot. Mrs. Montgomery's ability to keep a clean and tidy house despite her financial limitations is evidence of her character. In a similar sense, Dr. Sloper manifests his intellect in his elaborate study, his den of academia and knowledge. Dr. Sloper's "study" becomes the site of treason, however. In the most literal sense, Lavinia gives Morris full access to Dr. Sloper's study when the doctor goes to Europe for a year. This year of indulgence is the closest that Morris can get to inheriting any of Sloper's property. The more damaging treason comes from Catherine. Catherine steels herself and on two occasions she courageously goes to her father's study and confronts him, respectfully, with the truth. In his own study, Sloper's logical fallacies are exposed; in the study, Catherine asserts her rights, pleads for forgiveness, and is shut out of the room.

In the end, the Sloper home is such a contrast to the Almond home, just as the Sloper family line declines (downward slope), whereas the Almond family continues to flourish and blossom and grow (like a tree). The reader recalls that the Slopers visit the Almond house every Sunday and that Aunt Almond throws an engagement party for her daughter. Aunt Almond becomes a sympathetic mother figure, "spreading out carpets" for Catherine after the young woman is jilted. We don't need to read too deeply into the casual phrase to detect that for Aunt Almond, as for most people in our society, ideas of family and home are interconnected. To the extent that we live indoors, our interior furnishings (carpets, but also beds, rocking chairs, wine and china) reveal the transactions that occur within a family household. At the end of the novel, the house becomes a living tomb for Catherine. In the final scene, Catherine sits in the parlor, focused on her knitting: "picking up her morsel of fancywork, [she] had seated herself with it again - for life, as it were." Catherine has found domesticity, just as Dr. Sloper had found a house. But these physical aspects of domesticity are not enough to make a home.

Truth, Deception, and Imagination

Dr. Sloper is very interested in pursuing and uncovering the truth. Dr. Sloper aims to prevent Catherine from marrying Morris but at the same time, he is interested in finding out whether Catherine will stick with her plans. When Dr. Sloper realizes that Morris is a charlatan, he believes that Catherine must be informed and convinced to change her mind. Dr. Sloper hurts Catherine in the process and his behavior raises the question of whether truth should always be pursued to the fullest extent. Even in moral terms, it may sometimes be better to leave certain truths unsaid.

Morris and Lavinia are both characters who prefer to leave a good deal of truth unsaid, though for very different reasons. Though Morris did not have good intentions, he did not intend to hurt Catherine. He lied with the expectation of gaining money without causing any harm to Catherine. When Morris decides to end his engagement, he feels guilty about the pain he will cause Catherine. He does not look forward to speaking this truth to Catherine. Dr. Sloper relishes his opportunities to speak the bitter truth to Catherine.

Of course, Morris has several reasons to avoid speaking the bitter truth, but the main reason is because he's a liar. We can separate Morris' hesitant and incomplete confession to Catherine from his energetic voluble self-advertisements at the beginning of the novel. Morris lied so much that gullible Catherine couldn't help but consider him "artistic," as Aunt Penniman considered him "imperious." Morris is a fictional character who fictionalizes himself into a hero. His rakish poverty is redone as a moral tableau, some youthful excess from which Morris has drawn a lesson. Morris styles himself as a Spanish teacher, a stranger who has been around the world, and a commodities merchant who works downtown and most suddenly leave for New Orleans (Philadelphia) to speculate on cotton.

Lavinia Penniman also has a tenuous grip on truth and reality. Like Dr. Sloper, Lavinia seeks to counsel and advice others. If Dr. Sloper gives the right advice in the worst way, Lavinia has a "genius for consolation." Her imaginative powers are incredible and she can uncover a glimmer of hope or possibility in any scenario. At times, her character resembles Polonius from Hamlet, because she is often spouting commonplace phrases and platitudes that contradict each other: "The important thing is to act" a few scenes after Lavinia warns the young ones to be patient.

Lavinia is a romantic. Just as Morris has become "artistic" and sculpted a new self for himself, Lavinia has invented the idea of Morris and Catherine falling in love and realized this as best she could, all the while imagining herself as the "manager" or director of a "drama." In Lavinia's world, truth is beauty and beauty is relative. Lavinia does not distinguish between shades of possibility or desirability. She prefers "first meetings" and "last partings" and, once the end of the engagement is inevitable, Lavinia looks forward to this as well - so long as there is drama. This beautiful dramatic quality is what Lavinia interprets as true. Whenever Catherine is not visibly depressed, she is hiding something; for seventeen years, Catherine does not speak of Morris, she must have unresolved feelings for him. These are Lavinia's erroneous interpretations. Consistently, Lavinia looks at Catherine's deficits of emotion and romanticizes them as hidden spaces. At the end of the novel, Lavinia is surely disappointed that Catherine has dispensed with Morris so permanently and without fanfare.

Lavinia's artistic idea of truth as beauty is a contrast to Dr. Sloper's ideas of science and logic. But just as Lavinia's actions are a corruption of artistic ideals, Dr. Sloper's idea of truth is a corruption of science and logic. Sloper describes himself as an "anatomist" and argues that just as he is accustomed to assessing and looking into human beings (as a doctor) he can see through Morris' surface games and identify the man as a swindler. Sloper is entirely right in fearing Morris' greedy intentions, but Sloper uses false logic and abuses rules and conventions in order to have his way. Having identified Morris as guilty, Sloper does not take the time to prove his case logically. Having satisfied his own need for truth, he requests of Catherine: "I don't ask you to believe it, but to take it on trust." The narrator identifies this as "an ingenious sophism" ( a sophism" is an argument apparently correct in form but actually invalid). And Dr. Sloper's interrogative methods undermines the values and truths he aims to support. He abuses the trust that Catherine has in him, as her father. As a great man of society, he bullies a widow into speaking ill of her brother, as a means of protecting his own family. Once Sloper has his "revenge" on Catherine and allows her to suffer, he is unable to undo the consequences of the truth. He cannot make Catherine forget the betrayal; he cannot coax her into marriage with a different man. Dr. Sloper's accusations of treason and betrayal are ultimately documented in the codicil to his will - but that does not make the arguments, though legally binding, any more valid.