Henry James’s short novel Washington Square is about Dr. Austin Sloper, a resident of that Square in New York City, who cannot persuade his daughter Catherine not to marry Morris Townsend, whom he correctly regards as an idle mercenary. Although he is a successful doctor he fails as a father. Besides being a doctor, he is several times called a philosopher, as having an aura above practical science, and in confirmation is said to have “an idea of the beauty of reason.” But he cannot rule his daughter with the authority of his reason and ends up losing her respect. The novel is a story of loss: Dr. Sloper loses his daughter, and she loses both him and her lover, who also loses her. In the end, Catherine is vindicated as the heroine of the novel because only she is able to come to terms with her loss.
To say that the novel “is about” this or something else betrays my amateur status as literary critic, for I cannot read a book without wondering whether the author has a point to convey, and about the conventions of criticism apart from that point I am ill-informed. I believe that James has something valuable to say about authority, in America or anywhere, in the time of “republican simplicity” of his novel or at any time, and in particular on the authority of science and the resistance to it that continues today.
Disappointment and Acceptance
Let us begin as does James with the character of Dr. Sloper, very definitively set down at the beginning of the novel. Sloper was a distinguished physician, a member of a profession known in America more than elsewhere as liberal. James is writing, or the narrator is telling, of the recent past, “the first half of the present century,” in early 19th-century America when things were different. Yet it is constant in America that to “play a social part” one must earn or appear to earn one’s income, thus be practical, while at the same time to be “touched by the light of science,” like the physician, is also accounted merit. Americans have a “love of knowledge…not always…accompanied by leisure and opportunity”-James’s typically indirect way of saying that Americans are not quite satisfied with the practical but not willing to devote themselves to an impractical love of knowledge for its own sake.
This was a “scholarly doctor” who always gave his patients a prescription, a remedy as well as an explanation, neither theoretical without a remedy nor vulgar without an explanation. He was popular and had a first-rate reputation, which are equivalents in American democracy. His public character easily survived two grievous blows, the death of his first-born child, a son, followed by the death of his wife in giving birth to his second-born, a daughter. For these failures he was pitied rather than blamed by others, but he blamed himself for the rest of his days. He was, and was known to be, a “clever man,” but he suffered disappointment in his own life, in the application of his cleverness to his own affairs. His disappointment fell most heavily on his surviving daughter, Catherine, who was both plain and dull, yet so robust and healthy that the doctor could have no fear of losing her as he had lost his wife and son.
James also says that Sloper was “an observer, even a philosopher,” as if the science of medicine were touched by the light of something higher than science. The word “philosopher” occurs eight times in the novel in different forms, loosely as befits a democracy that sees value in science but not in the love of knowledge undirected to practice. Most frequently James uses it in the loose and popular sense of being able to accept disappointment, like a Stoic (though to be sure without mentioning “Stoic”). He later says that Dr. Sloper was a philosopher in this sense, but in the novel he proves to be very far from reconciled to the disappointment of his daughter’s rejection of his advice, which becomes a command, not to marry Morris Townsend. Townsend for his part seems much more philosophic in this sense than Dr. Sloper, yet Townsend’s last word in the novel, as he is sent away by the daughter, is “Damnation!” The only one who calmly accepts disappointment is Catherine Sloper, who, having lost her father and her beloved, ends the last scene by sitting down to her embroidery “for life, as it were.” Philosophy in this loose sense means acceptance of the reality that for certain human ills there is no remedy-the very contrary of science, which tirelessly seeks a remedy for everything. James insistently calls Catherine his “heroine” in order to indicate by his choice that he has something to tell to Americans (and to others like them) about the necessity of acceptance. That Americans use “philosophy” in this sense as praise, shows some appreciation for the resistance of reality to our wishes, but suggests too that they have no considered understanding of it. In Washington Square James sets himself as the narrator above his characters, to whom he condescends, I think because he wants his readers to feel disappointment in a novel with no obvious hero or heroine (since he has to identify Catherine for us six times), that is lacking in drama, and that does not have a happy ending.
He takes pride in producing a novel that makes us feel disappointed in order to understand better the nature of disappointment, particularly as it comes to a country that in its young history, and with its belief in progress, does not suffer it well. “Philosophy” is so far from being an accidental expression in Washington Square as to being the name for the wisdom, in its loose sense of intelligent resignation, that James actually teaches his readers. As an intellectual virtue it includes science while opposing the false optimism of science, and as a moral virtue it is democratically available to non-philosophers such as Catherine and very useful to democracy while opposing the false optimism that is characteristic of democracy.
An Idle Mercenary
Morris Townsend is Catherine’s beloved, the lover whom Dr. Sloper rejects as a son-in-law. The novel is a contest between the two for Catherine’s mind, won by neither. Townsend is introduced very differently from Dr. Sloper, for whom James wanted to be seen as “describing a clever man,” with all his virtues and accomplishments set forth in the first few pages of the book. We see Townsend only by stages, first through the eyes of Catherine as she meets him, but with the narrator looking over her shoulder and correcting her. Townsend speaks to her with easy charm, dances with her, amusing and beguiling her, so that she has to learn his first name from her aunt Mrs. Almond. As soon as she learns it she seems to hear it repeated in her ear, but as she leaves the party she pretends to her other aunt Mrs. Penniman and to her father that she does not know it. Catherine is quite taken with Townsend and wants to keep him to herself, a first sign of the rebellion to come.
By contrast to Dr. Sloper, Townsend is never described either definitely or completely, but is left in vagueness throughout. His doings are mostly a matter of rumor, and he gives his own unspecific confession that he had been “wild.” He had been “knocking about the world, and living in queer corners.” He has spent the small amount of money he inherited and led a “life of dissipation,” but he was amusing himself and he doesn’t owe a penny. He has “never concealed” his “great follies,” but they are never revealed either. Disputing with her father, Catherine says, “you know a part of him—what he has chosen to show you. But you don’t know the rest.” When her father asks her what is the rest, Catherine does not know but merely says, “There is sure to be plenty of it.” At the end, when Townsend comes back to see Catherine years later, the narrator says, “he had made himself comfortable, and he had never been caught.” Caught doing what? And by the police or by public opinion? It is not said. Having said early on that he was looking for a “position,” Townsend later gets one—but as what? He is in “partnership with a commission merchant,” Mrs. Penniman tells Catherine—perhaps the vaguest possible employment, trading rather than earning. Earlier his sister, the widowed Mrs. Montgomery, admitted to Dr. Sloper that Townsend had not actually brought up her children for her but had assisted in their education by teaching them Spanish! “That must take a great deal off your hands!” the doctor laughed, and then went on to ask directly whether Townsend was not sponging off her, an impecunious widow with five children.
With this question, which Dr. Sloper admits is crude, we come to the opposition between Dr. Sloper and Morris Townsend. The reason why Sloper rejects Townsend as a son-in-law is that he regards him as an idle mercenary who wants to marry Catherine for her money, the money she will inherit from him. James gives us reason to suppose that Sloper may be right, when Mrs. Penniman relates to Townsend that Sloper pretends Townsend likes the money he would get from marrying Catherine. “I do like the money!” he replies. Then, while Dr. Sloper takes Catherine on a trip to Europe to distract her from the idea of this disastrous marriage, Mrs. Penniman lives in his house and invites Townsend frequently to tea. He makes himself at home there. He spends time “turning over the curious collections of its absent proprietor,” whatever they were. He “found the house a perfect castle of indolence,” and it became for him “a club with a single member.” Earlier he had said that this is “a devilish comfortable house,” rueful but still relishing the prospect of living there with Catherine after her inheritance upon the doctor’s death.All this is clear evidence that Morris Townsend was indeed an idle mercenary, if “idle” means not twiddling one’s thumbs but having no position, and if “mercenary” means not greedy but living without earning an income. But what is wrong with that? James does not quite pose this question, though in some ways, we shall see, he invites it. It may seem strange to ask why “sponging” is wrong, still stranger to try to find a defense for it. For we today still commonly have contempt for that sort of dependency, and apart from that fact, one, and only one, definite answer to the question is given in the novel, and that is by Dr. Sloper as he condemns it. Sloper is suspicious of Townsend from the start, as soon as he sees him take an interest in Catherine. His view was pre-determined; he thought his daughter as plain and dull as Henry James describes her, “neither pretty nor lively,” so that any attraction to her could only be for her fortune. After Townsend had called on his daughter once, he jokingly asks her, “did he propose to you today?” She returns, with humor that surprised him, “Perhaps he will do it the next time.”After this retort, Dr. Sloper moves quickly to establish “[w]hat sort of gentleman” is Morris Townsend. Sloper’s intelligent sister Mrs. Almond sends him to Townsend’s sister, Mrs. Montgomery, who confirms his impression that Townsend sponges off her, as we have seen. He observes Townsend carefully at a dinner party, from which he sees that Townsend “has a very good head if he chooses to use it,” and Townsend concludes, correctly, that Dr. Sloper does not like him. At an evening at Mrs. Almond’s, the doctor tries Townsend again, from which he escapes, impudently the doctor thinks, with his claim that he is “amateur tutor” to his sister’s children. After Catherine tells her father that she is engaged to be married, he tells her directly that he does not like Townsend and on the following day confronts him as he arrives to ask him to approve the engagement. In this meeting the doctor comes out on top. He explains to Townsend why he disapproves of him as a son-in-law in a critical scene in which Townsend argues that he is not an idle mercenary and the doctor asserts to his face, “I don’t want to believe in you!” Catherine would be miserable as Townsend’s wife, Sloper believes, and yet he does not care if she were miserable even for a lifetime as a result of following his strong recommendation.
But to defend his disapproval, Dr. Sloper does not say that he knows Townsend’s character for sure. He merely says he belongs to the wrong category, the category of those whose absence of means or profession or resources or prospects would make it imprudent for him to “select” a husband from for his daughter, “who is a weak young woman with a large fortune.” He will not forbid the marriage, he says, for “I am not a father in an old-fashioned novel.” In an old-fashioned novel the father would simply forbid, but in this one he reasons, using a category based on his medical trade in which, he tells Mrs. Almond, he is right in estimating people 19 times out of 20. Later, he refers to the “philosophic trick” of induction that resembles his use of a category here. New-fashioned he may claim to be, but still he wants to “select” his daughter’s husband. His “categories,” his habit of “dividing people into classes, into types,” enables him to avoid the task of judging Morris Townsend as an individual and as a husband, and it assumes that earning one’s living is the only respectable life.
The Merit Principle
Two difficulties in this premise appear in Washington Square, the first having to do with Dr. Sloper, the second with Catherine. Dr. Sloper himself started with an income he did not earn, the result of marrying a rich wife. True, he would have been a doctor without this “accident,” and he had not become a doctor merely to make money but “to learn something and to do something.” Nonetheless, this good start enabled him to be a doctor “in the best possible conditions,” which meant having patients among “the ‘best people.'” Then, in addition, he earned enough because of his merit and his good start to make a fortune of his own, which was improving at a rate of $10,000 a year; this was not an accident. Merit was Dr. Sloper’s guiding principle—the idea that “[y]ou are good for nothing unless you are clever”—but his merit has received an assist at the beginning of his life and will leave a “fortune” for his heirs that they have not made on their own. His own fortune, which Catherine stood to inherit, is the very thing, the topic of the novel, over which he and Townsend dispute. He does not object to the acquisition by marriage of a large sum: “It’s right to get all one can” in that case. In Dr. Sloper’s own case, however, merit begins and ends with unearned income, with one inheritance that is received from his wife and another that is left to his heirs without any but an accidental relation to merit.
Sloper makes a great point of Townsend’s “liv[ing] upon” his sister, or, he also says, “living with her and doing nothing for himself.” He does not want such a person for a son-in-law, and he refuses to give Catherine a penny of his fortune if she marries him. Now, how does this judgment affect Catherine, his daughter, who lives with him and does nothing for herself to earn her income? After she learns from him of his refusal and still insists on marrying Townsend, she says to him, “If I live with you, I ought to obey you.” Here “living with” requires obedience, as opposed to “living on,” which perhaps has no requirements. Sloper agrees with this theory, to which she replies to his surprise, “But if I don’t obey you, I ought not to live with you.” To live with and not obey is sponging. Dr. Sloper’s principle makes a slave of his daughter and in general does not apply to women; it applies only to those men who take advantage of women. “You women are all the same!” the doctor declaims. Women tolerate and make excuses for men who are weak, who accept nothing of life but its pleasures, and secure pleasures mainly from the “complaisant sex.” In sum, the doctor has no place for women in the merit principle, the standard by which he denounces Morris Townsend. Catherine sees this, and in her “striking argument” to her father, not Townsend’s but “my own,” she says, she discovers the independence which makes her the heroine of Washington Square.
The merit principle has a political aspect, which we must now begin to unfold. It is enshrined in the “temple of Republican simplicity” to which Dr. Sloper pays his devotions by his distrust of luxury. Early on he worries that Catherine dresses too richly, on the occasion of the party at which she meets Townsend, in a red satin gown trimmed with a gold fringe that is described as “royal raiment.” It is all right to make money, but vulgar to show it. Yet just as merit leads to a fortune, so also it brings on the desire for luxury, and the novel expressly chronicles the rising “tide of fashion” that accompanies the growth of trade in New York City from “murmur” to “uproar.” The trend shows in the movement of the most fashionable real estate from Canal Street and the Battery on the lower tip of Manhattan to Washington Square and then uptown beyond that. When Dr. Sloper married his wife, Catherine, in 1820, she was one of the pretty girls of the “small but promising capital” at the Battery, referring perhaps to the fact that New York was the first capital of the United States in 1789-90 (though not, of course, in 1820); it was the place where George Washington was sworn in as the first president. Dr. Sloper then built, in 1835, a handsome house described as “modern” in Washington Square, uptown at Fourth Street, today a park in Greenwich Village. At the close of the novel the same house is called “old” and considered unfashionable in comparison with the brownstones further uptown. The Washington of the Square is George Washington, and the title of the novel marks a stage in the progress of the American republic in which wealthy, earned fortunes make their troublesome appearance and republican simplicity comes to be doubted and evaded.
The Case for Townsend
There is worse to come for republican simplicity, but after this account of Dr. Sloper’s merit principle, let us first see what might be said on behalf of Morris Townsend or the life of the idle mercenary. As little is said to describe Townsend’s life or to define his character, so he himself says little to defend either of them. Certainly he does not have a principle strong and clear enough to oppose effectively Dr. Sloper’s powerful rejection of him. We have seen that he makes a weak defense of himself as an amateur tutor of Spanish to his nephews, that later he claims to have a job as partner of a commission merchant, out of which nothing solid ever emerges, and that when he returns to see Catherine at the end, years later, it is said of him that he had made himself comfortable and “had never been caught,” hardly a recommendation. What does Catherine see to have fallen in love with him? She sees charm and intelligence, an entertaining husband, but then after Townsend refuses to marry her without the inheritance her father has denied her, she turns against him for good.
One person in the novel intercedes for Townsend, defends him in every situation, and regards him as a “hero”—the only one to do so—and that is Mrs. Lavinia Penniman, Dr. Sloper’s sister. Mrs. Penniman is the widow of a preacher (with whom Sloper had once had an angry exchange), who, having no money, comes to live with the doctor after her husband died. But Mrs. Penniman, we are told, was a “goose.” Townsend had originally used her as intermediary to recommend him to Catherine, who “was not wise enough to discover” her aunt’s stupidity. Later, she does discover it when she learns that Mrs. Penniman has met privately with Townsend and is taking his part against her father. To Catherine Mrs. Penniman conveys greater assurance of Townsend’s desire to marry her than is the fact and in doing so helps to increase her disappointment when she finds that he will not marry her disinherited from her father’s fortune. Catherine has great respect for her father and felt that to displease him would be like “an act of profanity in a great temple.” When she does then deliberately displease him, it is not because her aunt had with her usual levity suggested it. Later, she finds that her aunt had encouraged Townsend to leave her or at least justified his leaving, as if she had agreed to it. And at the end of the book, after the doctor’s death and years have passed while aunt and niece live together in the house in Washington Square, it is the aunt, always seeking drama and now providing the climax of the novel, who tells Catherine that she has seen Townsend and who then “take[s] the liberty” of inviting him, despite Catherine’s discouragement, to see her again, as it turns out, one last time. In sum, the case for Townsend, and the management of what Mrs. Penniman regards as “the real romance of his life” (words attributed by her to him), are in the charge of a goose. Yet there is a case for Townsend one might begin to state from a description of him by Mrs. Almond, Dr. Sloper’s younger and wiser sister. By no means wishing to compliment Townsend, she says that if he marries Catherine, and gets the doctor’s money, “he will be an idle, amiable, selfish, and…tolerably good-natured fellow.” She goes on to say that if he does not get the money, he will take revenge, and be “pitiless and cruel” as a husband. This last is a judgment not borne out in the novel, because Townsend has the sense not to marry her. He is indeed looking for someone to live upon, and under that condition he would be a perfectly good husband for Catherine, a better one, perhaps, than a man Dr. Sloper would respect. We do not know what Townsend really does with his life, besides not earning a living and seeking an unearned income for himself. There are people wrapped up in themselves—philosophers come to mind—who could be considered selfish, idle, sponging mercenaries, perhaps even cruel if distracted from their preoccupation, without being worthless.
I do not suppose that Henry James’s repeated references to philosophy in Washington Square are casual or distant or unserious; there was, after all, a philosopher in his family. But there is an appearance of casualness arising from the fact that philosophy is seen from underneath in his book, for its upshot and not as a philosopher would see it. As it appears here, “philosophy” means reasoning strictly, as by inference or induction, and it also describes a moral attitude of equanimity. Looking at Dr. Sloper and Morris Townsend, we see that the former is called a philosopher and the latter is not. Summing them up, we may judge that Sloper is knowing (or “clever”), is a gentleman, is accomplished, has a sterling reputation, and has his own means—whereas Townsend is looking (always looking around without finding anything), is not a gentleman (according to Dr. Sloper, though Townsend claims to be one) but a ne’er-do-well, is held to be “wild,” and lives upon others. Each has one aspect of the philosopher—Sloper the knowledge and belief in the beauty of reason, the scientific part of philosophy, and Townsend the life of seeking rather than finding—but each also falls short. Neither has equanimity of mind, the most prominent characteristic of the philosopher given by James, apparently casually but I would say with purpose, in his book. Each of them curses Catherine, the heroine. Dr. Sloper gives her a father’s curse in disinheriting her, even insulting her in his will; Morris Townsend, though coolly facing his opponent and cautious in considering his prospects, ends by calling out “Damnation!”
I was going to say that each of them curses poor Catherine, but she is the one who shows equanimity. After her father’s death she lives contentedly with one-fifth of his inheritance, not contesting his will but only remarking that she “wish[ed] it had been expressed a little differently!” Her response to Townsend, if she heard him as he left the house, was to go back to her embroidery.
What is wrong with the two men? To Townsend, when at the end after many years he comes back to ask for her friendship, she says, “You treated me badly.” He had won her love, promising to stay with her regardless of the inheritance though urging her to do her best to persuade her father not to deny it. When the denial comes, they have a confrontation that Catherine, James’s undramatic heroine, refuses to accept as a “scene.” Townsend, trying to make a quarrel that would ease his abandonment of her, says he is too proud to owe her anything (agreeing with Dr. Sloper that earning is the only way to live). She replies that she will take him as he is. He departs New York, refusing to see her as she begs him, forcing her into the shame of going to his home to ask for him, and then sends her a letter in which he deplores the necessity of this abandonment, claiming that the two of them are “innocent but philosophic victims of a great social law.” The great social law is that they cannot marry each other because she is rich and he is poor; he would necessarily have to live upon her, thus making him dependent on her, hurting his pride and violating the freedom and equality of republican simplicity. In this statement Townsend translates earning one’s income as “rich,” and failing to do so as “poor.” His wanting an unearned income to live upon made him poor, and he could not find a way to justify himself to Catherine.
Mrs. Penniman suggests to Catherine, as if in his name, that Townsend’s “scruples” keep him from agreeing to the marriage that would bring down her father’s curse on her and cost her an inheritance. This argument has the effect of justifying Dr. Sloper’s conduct rather than Catherine’s: he was right to think Morris was an idle mercenary, and she was wrong to think he loved her. Her love for him was unrequited, and she thought it just that he return it. He would have made a good husband under his terms but, as Mrs. Almond said, he could not meet hers. He was cruel to her as lovers feel and understand cruelty—the injustice of loving another and not being loved in return. Republican simplicity requires that love be requited, mutuality for the sake of equality, as opposed to marriage between unequals based on mutual advantage. Republican simplicity renders spenders like Townsend unequal to earners like Sloper, thus unfit to marry the daughter of an earner. Townsend was too republican to defend himself, and James does not suggest a republican defense he might have used. All he does is to make his readers wish for such a defense so that Townsend could marry Catherine and the novel have a happy ending.
Tyranny of Reason
If Morris Townsend had too little justice to offer, Dr. Sloper had too much. It is time to return to the question of authority raised earlier. James shows by stages the breakdown of reason to authority, from the doctor who has an idea of the beauty of reason, to the father who becomes a tyrant as the idea of reason is carried into practice. We have seen Dr. Sloper suspicious of Townsend from the beginning. He has a natural father’s concern for his daughter’s happiness, but it is narrowed and framed by the principle that merit is shown in the earning of one’s own income in contrast to the idle selfishness of living upon others, a principle that ignores possible merit in not earning one’s income. When the doctor moves to apply this principle to Townsend, he tosses aside Mrs. Penniman’s rosy view that Townsend is a “young man of great force of character, and of remarkable powers of satire.” He determines from his other sister, Mrs. Almond, that Townsend lives with his widowed sister and considers that this means living upon her. Then he decides, based on a quick view of Townsend and his long experience as a doctor, that Townsend is not a gentleman, but in fact a “plausible coxcomb.” His daughter, he decides too, is a “grievous…simpleton” whose view of Townsend can be dismissed if not ignored, and he turns on Mrs. Penniman, who tells him correctly that his daughter is not a “weak-minded woman.” The crux of the novel is when Dr. Sloper foils Morris Townsend but loses his daughter. He admits that Townsend is intelligent and keen, but believes that this makes him more dangerous to his weak-minded daughter, and he sees that Townsend is calm and affable, with no sign of evasiveness, but puts this down to his amazing conceit. Catherine agrees to meet him, not at a tryst as Townsend proposes, but in the parlor of the doctor’s home rather than behind his back—in his face one could say, declaring her independence.
Not being an old-fashioned father, Dr. Sloper will not forbid his daughter’s marriage, but he will disinherit her if she goes ahead with it. This move sets a love test for the couple and has the effect of exposing the mercenary Townsend’s motive by separating it from his good will and decency as well as love. To the extent that he treats Catherine badly it is because he was compelled to give up his interest, necessarily “selfish,” in order to have her. Dr. Sloper makes Townsend behave worse than he wants; this is not the voice of reason being reasonable. Though “determined to be very mild” with his daughter, he proceeds to Townsend’s sister, Mrs. Montgomery, and gets her, with promises of financial help, to say to him, “Don’t let [Catherine] marry him!” He also wanted her to say that Townsend is “abominably selfish,” though Mrs. Montgomery denies him this “moral satisfaction.” He states that the function of a son-in-law is to be a protector and care-taker of “my child,” who cannot take care of herself. His premise is that Catherine remains his child, not that, being his daughter, she might be grateful for his advice.
Catherine tells Mrs. Penniman that she has not seen Townsend “because my father has forbidden it.” But her will is now her own if not her behavior. In a subtle passage James shows her father demanding that she make him happy by giving up Townsend: “It all depends on your will.” But he means that her will is to depend on his, as Catherine sees in asking, “Is it to give him up?” “It” means his will, and he answers “yes.” Have you no “faith in my wisdom…?” he inquires. Catherine believes, we have noticed, that to displease him would be like “an act of profanity in a great temple.” Her father was sorry for her but was “so sure he was right.” Dr. Sloper then demands of Mrs. Penniman that she cease giving encouragement to Catherine, who is “in deliberate opposition to my wishes.” To give her aid and comfort would be “distinctly treasonable.” You talk like a “great autocrat,” says Mrs. Penniman, and Sloper replies that he talks like his daughter’s father. His reason has become his will, and his will is stated by Mrs. Penniman in political terms. Mrs. Penniman does not think that Dr. Sloper is an orthodox Christian, but Catherine begins to think that she has broken a “sacred law” in opposing him. With this phrase the question of the relevance of divinity makes a slight but significant intrusion into the novel. For it is obvious that the difference between making one’s own living and living upon someone else is affected by man’s relation to God. If Dr. Sloper depends for his existence and prosperity on the providence of God, then he can be said to earn his own living only in a limited sense. His earning would be consequent to a gift, for which he would have to be grateful rather than proud as if his success were entirely his own doing. Thus it is no accident that he represents modern science, which brings benefit to human beings because it doubts God’s beneficence and believes that progress will occur only from adopting that doubt as its premise. Nor is it a surprise that the belief in one’s own self-sufficiency, which is both cause and effect of earning one’s own living, should excite a certain phantom sense of divinity in one’s own authority, such as happens to Dr. Sloper.
The doctor takes his daughter on a trip to Europe in the hope that she will be distracted from her love, and Catherine consents in the hope that he will be mollified in his will. Europe seems to stand for the beauties of life as they soften its willfulness, but it doesn’t work this time. Catherine accompanies her father dutifully, but at last, in a desolate scene high in the Alps, he challenges her to say whether she has given up Townsend, and she answers no. To which he replies that he is very angry: Townsend is “not a good man,” and he can be “very hard”—as indeed he proves to be. The doctor is “exasperated.” Townsend justly observes that he “combines the properties of a lump of ice and a red-hot coal,” so far is he from equanimity. In an exchange with his wiser sister Mrs. Almond, Dr. Sloper refuses sympathy to Catherine and insists that there was nothing cruel in saving her from an abominable marriage.
Earners and Spenders
As Sloper descends from the temple of republican simplicity to the autocracy of a patriarch enshrined by sacred law, Catherine ascends in the other direction from plain and dull to her own “authoritative speech.” When telling her father of her engagement, she obliges him to give his reasons for opposing it but only succeeds in hardening his authority. She does give herself authority, however. Soon she finds herself “thinking over her situation” and considering how to be a good daughter. While doing so she sees herself as another person “who was both herself and not herself.” She was making up her mind, a phrase we use both for reflecting on something and for settling on a solution, both reason and authority.
James gives a picture of self-knowledge at work in the one character in the novel who learns something, who “grows,” as we say now. “I am braver than I was,” she says to Mrs. Penniman. She never does anything drastic, and Washington Square is a rather dull romance. Catherine has to be identified as its heroine because she does nothing dramatic to demand our interest in her. She lives in a republic that is not as simple as it thinks itself to be, for it is devoted to making money—Dr. Sloper himself, we recall, says that “[i]t’s right to get all one can”—but morally contemptuous of one who appears to be mercenary. James invites us to foresee trouble arising from this two-faced attitude. The honesty that distinguishes earning from non-earning can transform itself into high-minded contempt for those who do not earn, above all women, for whom Sloper has little good to say. For this he receives a deserved reproof from the author, who makes a woman the heroine. Hardly a siren, no sort of queen, she is a woman who says to her supposed lover, “I disappoint everyone.” The most notable point that could have been made in Morris Townsend’s defense can be glimpsed in Dr. Sloper’s strongest attack on him. While Sloper is away in Europe, Townsend, as noted above, was “making free” with his house by invitation of Mrs. Penniman. The doctor calls this “inconceivable bad taste” and says of Townsend, who passes through the novel undefined, as we saw, “[i]f that doesn’t describe him, he is indescribable.” Townsend spends Sloper’s money in his absence, just as he might have done as his son-in-law after he died. Townsend is a spender as opposed to an earner. Now, what does one earn money for if not to spend it at some point? If so, what good is it to earn money if one doesn’t know how to spend it? One could even say, and the classical philosophers said it, that money, and indeed all things, belong truly, as opposed to legally, to those who know how to use them best. What most infuriates Dr. Sloper about Townsend should impress him the most—why, here is a man who can spend my money better than I! I should let him go to it. Sloper does not appreciate that his true objection to Townsend is not that he does not earn but that he will not spend well. Earning one’s own money does not guarantee that one will use it well, as is obvious in Sloper’s case. Although claiming, and wishing, to act in his daughter’s interest, he did his best to make her life miserable.
One can see why the American republic respects earners rather than spenders, for most everyone can earn and very few can spend well. Earning is more democratic than spending as the test of merit, and the honest earner does not take from other earners, whereas the spender uses another’s money. But if we relax the requirement that one be a philosopher in order to spend well, a more political, even more republican, view emerges. The multitude of those who earn does not, at this time, include women; half the citizens are left without the republican respect due to merit. But if women are not allowed to earn, they can at least spend well; they can excel at home economics. This possibility does not occur to Dr. Sloper, and if it had, he would probably not have extended the principle to include Townsend. Catherine, however, spent her money well in charitable activities and “became an admirable old maid…with an even and noiseless step,” an unspoken example to all. After Catherine had been jilted, she refused at least two offers of marriage, one from a young man who was “seriously in love” with her. She was not going to learn and move on from her experience, for her love was serious because it had made her free. Because she knew how to live in leisure, she was in fact freer than her father.
The men in the American republic are unerotic earners, doubtful of love and suspicious of lovers, and they do not offer material for drama. At their best they are mostly like Dr. Sloper, too hard and too sure. After all, Sloper was a type of the kind he was fond of conceiving: it was his virtue mixed with his concern, and not his evil, that made him cruel. A few men are like Morris Townsend, reflective but too pliable, and unable to find a principle by which to sustain a leisured way of life with time for love as well as wine and cigars. The two men represent philosophy in the two loose senses of too rational and too unworldly. Henry James’s heroine is philosophical in the loose sense featured in Washington Square—the ability to live with disappointment. This popular sense of “philosophy,” no doubt connected to the stricter, more demanding notion that philosophy is learning to die, is perhaps needed most in a country devoted to progress like America. A commercial country, always on the rise, always moving “uptown,” needs a source of equanimity for the times when its optimism proves false. James assigns it to women with the inner strength of soul that Catherine develops and displays. In two novels following Washington Square, James follows the advancing course of the emancipation of women. The Portrait of a Lady(1881) has for its heroine Isabel Archer, a young American “very fond of my liberty,” whose father has died and who receives a fortune to spend from her uncle. In The Bostonians (1886), Verena Tarrant is the object of a contest for her soul between a retrograde conservative man and a feminist woman. In both cases the modest “philosophy” of Catherine is left behind if not rejected, and in neither is the result the woman’s happiness.
The Goose’s Irony
There is another woman in the novel whom I have mentioned throughout—Mrs. Penniman, Dr. Sloper’s sister who is labeled a goose by the narrator almost as soon as she appears. I have an idea that Mrs. Penniman, the mediator between the three main characters, who always fails because she tries to add drama to every occasion, is James’s alter ego—as opposed to his heroine. She brings the characters together and, by overdoing it, keeps them apart. She, in her “innocent falsity,” prides herself on “always saying the right thing”—even though she speaks twice of the “ruins of the Pantheon,” mixing it up with the Parthenon. She flatters herself that she is “philosophic.” James’s hallmark as a novelist is irony, and the word is used twice in the novel by Dr. Sloper, who praises it and then lays it aside. Mrs. Penniman represents false drama, setting off by contrast to herself the sober good sense of Catherine, who needs no drama to see her way to independence. Yet readers need the contrast in order to see the point. James the novelist supplies the need of his readers for drama. All drama is false drama, as it is life dramatized, and yet true when the drama brings out a truth otherwise hidden. James amuses himself by appearing as a goose, and with his literary art he outdoes philosophy in the spirit of philosophy. As a novelist James shows himself more to be accurate than Dr. Sloper, the character in his novel whom he ironically calls “philosopher.” Dr. Sloper understands human beings scientifically and professionally according to “types” that may work in the practice of medicine (though not unfailingly) but that do not disclose the whole human being when it comes to judging a possible son-in-law. James’s refusal to describe Morris Townsend, leaving it unclear whether Catherine’s love or her father’s science supplies the truer judgment of him, is his way of showing the incompetence of science in the business of life. In the scene where Dr. Sloper declares definitely that he knows the character of Morris Townsend “well enough,” he says to Catherine that she can wait to marry until he dies. “Your engagement,” he says, “will make you extremely impatient for that event.” The doctor enjoys making this point, as Catherine recoils in “natural horror.” She regarded it as like a “logical axiom,” not “in her province to controvert,” yet a “scientific truth” she felt wholly unable to accept. Resistance to science, i.e. resistance to his science (for science in practice is always some human being’s science), was the basis for her equanimity and her freedom. Science cannot understand resistance to science, hence cannot understand either the need for equanimity when science brings disappointment or the value of freedom from the sort of “scientific truth” that Catherine’s father tried, unsuccessfully, to impose on her.
One could also consider whether Henry James does not cast a doubting glance in the direction of his brother William’s optimistic philosophy of pragmatism. In a way Henry is below philosophy because one could reflect on the principle of earning one’s own living without the aid of his characters and the action of his plot, brushing them aside to find more directly what the novel “is about.” But in giving one to think with the help of the qualities of a novel, he keeps philosophy all the more alive because in his treatment it does not reek of answers and conclusions—and when it does overreach, in the person of Dr. Sloper, it can bring on the grand disappointments against which it should have armed us. Yet again, if one wants to be given to think, one must be in a receptive mood, not just looking curiously but looking for what the author, in the slightest details as well as in obvious features, shows the novel is about.