Washington Square by Henry James Spock “Washington Square” begins with shy, unattractive Catherine Sloper, an heiress living under the roof of her handsome, domineering father, Doctor Austin Sloper. She is susceptible to the charms of Morris Townsend, a lovely man without a conscience or money of his own. Equally susceptible is Catherine’s aunt, Lavinia Penniman, a widow starved for romance and financially dependent upon her brother, Doctor Sloper. Doctor Sloper acts on his suspicions of Morris’ motives for marrying Catherine, conducting a background investigation that proves the man has no job or means of income. Catherine and her father engage in a battle of wills – Catherine is certain her love for Morris and her infinite patience will sway her father, while Doctor Sloper believes time and distance will open his daughter’s eyes to Morris’ true character and intentions. Morris eventually betrays Catherine, and instead of the young woman being grateful to her father for his undying persistence in “showing her the light”, she feels “from her own point of view the great facts of her career were that Morris Townsend had trifled with her affections, and that her father had broken its spring” (pg.
180). Refusing other marriage proposals, including another from Morris, Catherine lives out the rest of her life content as an “old maid” in Washington Square. The scene in which Morris finally lets Catherine know of his breaking off of their engagement is the pivotal scene of the novel, leaving her alone in her world. In this scene, a main theme of the novel is displayed abandonment. Throughout the novel, the feeling of abandon is commonplace.
First, Doctor Sloper is abandoned as his young son passes, and later his beloved wife in childbirth. Next, Aunt Penniman is abandoned by the passing of her late husband, followed by the schism between Doctor Sloper, Aunt Penniman, and Catherine. Then, Catherine is abandoned by Morris. Finally, Catherine is furthermore abandoned by her father. Catherine is optimistic that if she remains a dutiful daughter and patiently waits, her father will eventually give his blessing to her engagement. Doctor Sloper is confident that Catherine will eventually come to the realization that he is right about Morris, and that it would never do for her to marry him.
Sure of Catherine’s loyalty, Doctor Sloper falls to the temptation of underestimating his daughter’s love for Morris and self-respect for herself, which ultimately causes her to lose her respect for him. Doctor Sloper observes his daughter’s affection for Morris Townsend, refuses Morris’ suit for her hand; investigates the young man’s background for proof he is disreputable. As Doctor Sloper does all he possibly can to dissolve the relationship between Catherine and Morris, he demands loyalty from his sister, Lavinia, for this cause. Doctor Sloper demands of Lavinia that she keep her communications with Morris Townsend to herself, and keep Catherine out of it. Doctor Sloper makes every effort to compel Catherine to give up Morris, including an extended trip to Europe.
Upon return he learns she has lost him, but she will never give him the satisfaction that he was in the right. Catherine’s desire to marry Morris, and Doctor Sloper’s drive to keep them apart brings them to a new consciousness in their relationship. Long after Morris’ departure, her father, contemplating the facts, still doesn’t believe Catherine has given up on her lover. Catherine, fully conscious of the irrevocable damage her father has caused the affair, closes her heart to him. Catherine’s thematic conflict is illustrated in the responsibility she feels toward her father, and the commitment she had made to her lover, Morris Townsend.