Character in Henry James's Washington Square

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A Question of Character in Henry James's Washington Square


After reading Henry James's Washington Square, I was left a bit curious as to why James had so many static characters in his novel. Character development is a major literary device in most works, but was almost completely ignored in this book. I say almost because Catherine's demeanor seems to, even if just to the most subtle degree, drift towards an unphilanthropic attitude. Dr. Austin Sloper, his two sisters and poor Morris Townsend remain rigidly in their roles from start to finish, even throughout the span of two decades.

Fortunately, the most accomplished poet T. S. Eliot, defends James on exactly this topic in his short essay, "A Prediction." "With 'character,' in the sense in which the portrayal of character is usually expected in the English novel," Eliot writes, "he had no concern" (55). He went on to add " 'character' is only one of the ways in which it is possible to grasp at reality" (55). Eliot insists that had James been better at developing characters, his writing would have suffered in other aspects (55).

Fair enough, but then I was left with a question from his 'prediction'. What then is the driving point to Washington Square? Is it the plot perhaps, or the interaction of these concrete characters?

Consider the complexity, or rather lack thereof, of the action and plot. The characters are introduced and Morris Townsend meets young Catherine. They court for a short while and Dr. Sloper investigates the young man's behaviors and concludes that he doesn't like him and forbids the marriage when the idea is presented to him. He and Catherine travel to Europe while Mr. Townsend visits with Lavinia, but upon Dr. Sloper's return, leaves Catherine. Finally, some twenty years later, the doctor dies leaving none of his fortune to his daughter who is visited by Mr. Townsend one last time resulting in absolutely no consequence.

If somebody told me that there was a book in which two hundred pages of plot was accurately and completely summarized in one short paragraph and character development was of no concern, I would have been most certain that what they actually had read was a screenplay for a porno. Plot was obviously not one of James' major concerns with this novel, but to his credit, implements it better than Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Towards the end of his essay, Eliot hit upon the magic of Washington Square.

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"Character in Henry James's Washington Square." 123HelpMe.com. 24 May 2018
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James "was possessed by the vision of an ideal society; he saw (not fancied) the relations between the members of such a society" (56). If nothing else, James did a superb job of interaction at a social/class level. The intercourse between Townsend's lower class sister and Doctor Sloper illustrates James's commanding penmanship in this regard. With the question of James' merit finally answered by Eliot, I wonder what James would have thought of The Waste Land?

Work Cited

Eliot, T. S. "A Prediction: A Prediction in Regard to Three English Authors." Vanity Fair (1924): 55-56.


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