Goodreads: Washington Square
(From the Signet Edition)
The plot of Washington Square has the simplicity of old-fashioned melodrama: a plain-looking, good-hearted young woman, the only child of a rich widower, is pursued by a charming but unscrupulous man who seeks the wealth she will presumably inherit. On this premise, Henry James constructed one of his most memorable novels, a story in which love is answered with betrayal and loyalty leads inexorably to despair.”
— from the Introduction by Peter Conn
In Washington Square (1880), Henry James reminisces about the New York he had known thirty years before as he tells the story of Catherine Sloper and her fortune-seeking suitor Morris Townsend. This perceptively drawn human drama is James’ most accessible work and an enduring literary triumph.
Washington Square Press’ Enriched Classics present the great works of world literature enhanced for the contemporary reader. This edition of Washington Square has been prepared by Peter Conn, Andrea Mitchell Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. It includes his introduction, notes, selection of critical excerpts, and suggestions for further reading as well as a unique visual essay of period illustrations and photographs.
Washington Square, if reduced to its core plot, sounds a bit dull: It’s about a young woman, Caroline, who becomes engaged to a man her father suspects of courting her only for her money and her struggles to be true to both pieces of her heart, the part that wants to honor and obey her father and the part that wants to marry the man she loves. The book is relatively quiet, without much drama, but it’s a fascinating character study, not just of the protagonist but of all the people who surround her become invested in her courtship.
Caroline’s father, a doctor, is the voice of reason in the novel; one frequently finds oneself rooting for him, his pragmatism, and his insight into the human soul, even if there are times he seems to be a little too cool and logical. Her aunt is the opposite, overly romantic and determined to involve herself in the affair of others simply because she thinks things have a certain aura about them; she will, for instance, arrange clandestine meetings with nothing to say to the person she’s meeting simple because the idea of a secret rendezvous has an appeal to her. She’s also a bit of a Panderus, determined to act as a go-between for separated lovers.
The protagonist is quieter, but her inner struggles are fascinating as she tries to balance her love for two different people who do not (will not) get along. Even today, when many readers might romanticize the idea of Caroline just telling her father to get over himself because she’s going to marry whom she wants no matter what he thinks, her desire to respect her father’s opinions while also courting a man he dislikes is arresting, and one cannot help but hope there will be a way for it to all work out amicably. It’s also great to see a somewhat quiet character who also has a spine and iron will that the other characters do not always suspect.
Henry James’s work can be a bit of an acquired taste, or maybe just polarizing, but Washington Square is very readable–more so than some of his other texts if you’ve tried them–and will likely appeal to readers who like classics and romances in general.