July 15, 2013

Review: "Washington Square" By Henry James

Some truly monstrous fathers can be found among the great works of fiction.  Shakespeare's King Lear and Titus Andronicus certainly come to mind, or Hardy's 'Michael Henchard', and 'Laius of Thebes' may be the worst of the lot.  Having just finished reading Henry James's Washington Square I am now fully prepared to add Doctor Austin Sloper to my top-ten list of 'Worst Fathers of Fiction'.

Washington Square is a short novel (more a novella) by Henry James written in 1880, and is really an excellent introduction to the fiction of James.  The novel is set in the New York City of the mid-19th century, and is the story of the courting of Dr. Sloper's only living child, Catherine, by a handsome young man, Morris Townsend.  Catherine is, according to her father, "a dull, plain girl", but she is very, very rich.  The plot largely revolves around Townsend's efforts to win Catherine's hand in marriage; the Doctor's efforts to thwart the attachment; and the meddling interference of Catherine's busy-body aunt, Lavinia Penniman.  During the course of the courtship the reader is exposed to the monstrosity of Dr. Sloper, and begins to question the motives of Morris Townsend, and most importantly we witness the maturation of Catherine Sloper.

Some authors paint the landscapes of their fictional world and insert their characters and the plot into it, but James takes an entirely different approach.  Henry James portrays the psychological landscape of his characters' minds with his words.  However, he throws a wrinkle into the mix as his narrator is neither omniscient nor completely reliable.  In other words, much of the time the reader knows as little or as much as the characters themselves in the novel.  It is almost as though the reader is sitting in the parlor listening to the conversations, but maybe is only able to comprehend half of what is said.

Read this book slowly and carefully, and try and place yourself in the the thoughts and emotions of each of the protagonists and you'll find that your perceptions sharpen and you're able to detect the psychological nuances that influence the tale's outcome.  I'm of the mind that this is a story to read and reread and continually discover new and important insights.  James seems to prefer to exercise his readers and that is perhaps not altogether a bad thing.  A solid four out of five stars for me.


Washington Square
By Henry James, 1880
Everyman's Library Edition
Hardcover, 232 pp.

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