It was the man who had been everything, and yet this person was nothing.
Henry James, Washington Square (1881)
Last week: Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave (1853)
This week: Henry James, Washington Square (1881)
Next week: Sarah One Jewett, “A White Heron” (1886)
I teach the novel Washington Square every couple of years, since first doing so as a TA for “Writing New York” at NYU with Bryan Waterman and Cyrus Patell, back in 2004 & 2006. My copy is dog-eared and marked up every which way. But — I am going to put this down in writing for the first time — I don’t like reading it. I don’t like reading it because the characters are so intractable and noxious, but I do love teaching it, for that very same reason. This week’s class discussion was one of my favorites. We get all riled up, feeling pity and frustration. New readings were offered; new alliances were formed. It’s really something to see this old fusty novel bring out the knives.
According to Mona Simpson’s introduction to the Signet edition, Henry James (1843-1916) didn’t care for it much either. He left this “unhappy accident” of a novel out of his collected works, and wrote his brother that he thought that “The only good thing in the story is the girl.” The girl he means is Catherine Sloper, who suffers her father’s criticism and her widowed aunt’s meddling and her fiancé’s inconstancy, as they slowly, excruciatingly suffocate her love life until she turns into parlor furniture in the house her father built with her dead mother’s money. Okay, okay that is a pretty pitiful summary. But it is a book about the dangers of poor parenting. At the end of the book, Catherine Sloper is described as sitting with “a morsel of fancy-work” in the front room of #18 Washington Square North “for life, as it were.” She’s 40. Ouch.
I disagree with James that the only good thing about the book is the girl. The best part of the book is the narrator, a snarky, snide bastard, who never lets up. This narrator is an early example of the Jamesian “central consciousness,” or a metafictional narrator, who has access to the interiors, pasts, and memories of all the characters. He knows how the story will end. He knows the true motivations of everyone in the novel, but he chooses what to disclose and holds it over us. And, as he can’t help but mention, this narrator’s grandmother used to live next door, at #19 (we see you Henry James, Jr.).
In Washington Square, the characters themselves have very limited consciousnesses based on their intelligence, awareness, faults, and moral failings. This book, and the excellent Portrait of A Lady published later that same year (1881) were celebrated in James’s triumphant and brief return to the United States. He chose to live most of his adult life in Europe, so he is perhaps only by passport and upbringing “an American writer.” This period is known to James scholars as the “Middle Period,” characterized by the influence of the French Realists whose writing and friendships he relied upon, and the new-found distance he put between himself and Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Concord Romantics. The Jamesian narrator and sentence structure becomes more complex and experimental in the Late Style (“the master period”) as the complexity of his characters’ consciousness grows. (I’ll probably come back around to him some day on Select Reading.)
Here’s an example of how this central consciousness works. The love interest, Morris Townsend, has proposed to Catherine Sloper but her father will not approve the match. Catherine’s aunt Lavinia Penniman has set up a meeting with Morris because she is a tiresome mixer who likes to put herself in the center of other people’s business, and “she wished the plot to thicken.” Because she has it in her head that she must not been seen, because secrecy is so much more fun, she chooses to have Morris meet her at “an oyster saloon in the Seventh Avenue” and she meets him at dusk, wrapped in a veil so as not to be discovered.
“When Morris at last arrived, they sat together in the duskiest corner of the back shop; and it is hardly too much to say that this was the happiest half hour that Mrs. Penniman had known for years. The situation was really thrilling, and it scarcely seemed to her a false note when her companion asked for an oyster stew…
It would have gratified him to tell her that she was a fantastic old woman, and he would like to put her into an omnibus and send her home. We know, however, that Morris possessed the virtue of self control, and he had moreover the constant habit of seeking to be agreeable; so that, although Mrs Penniman’s demeanor only exasperated his already unquiet nerves, he listened to her with a sombre deference in which she found much to admire” (109, end ch 15, italics mine).
The central consciousness has bounced from a dramatic position (i.e. what we would see if this was a stage play, two people at a small table in an oyster saloon) to the first intrusion of the narrator’s interior vision, to share that “it is hardly too much to say” that the interior of Mrs. Penniman is lit up with secret glee to be acting out one of her melodramas. Then, the narrator swaps back to camera 1 over the shoulder of Mrs. Penniman, taking up her perspective on Morris, and his ordering of oyster stew. Then we swing around to camera 2, to look at Mrs. Penniman from Morris’s exasperated perspective, how he hates her “fantasies” and wants to put her on the next bus home. “We know” the narrator intimates, that Morris won’t let on about any of this — we’re privy to his inner thoughts too, but also his character and moral habit of being “agreeable.” Then right at the end of the passage, we swing back to Mrs. Penniman’s camera 1, to look upon him admiringly. There is a discord between what is actually happening (two people meet and have oyster stew) and what they felt about what happened (everything else going on in the paragraph above).
The narrator reports, unfiltered, the ugliest of internal thoughts. But he does so indirectly and selectively, like a fly landing briefly on one white head or another. We are aware as we read of the existence of an opinionated sensibility (“the narrator”) interposed between the reader and the experiences in the novel. James never puts the reader in direct contact with the subject — the narrator is always there, mediating, selecting, deciding what readers know, and cannot know.
Here’s another example. Catherine Sloper’s father, Dr. Sloper, says internally, when he sees his daughter in her favorite dress made of red velvet: “it made him fairly grimace, in private, to think that a child of his should be both ugly and overdressed.” The subject is not what the dress looked like, whether it was fashionable or well-suited to her, but instead, how Dr Sloper felt about Catherine’s wearing it. Here’s what Dr Sloper says out loud to her, and what Catherine felt about it:
“Is it possible that this magnificent person is my child?” he said.
You would have surprised him if you had told him so; but it is a literal fact that he almost never addressed his daughter save in the ironical form. Whenever he addressed her he gave her pleasure; but she had to cut her pleasure out of the piece, as it were. There were portions left over, light remnants and snippets of irony, which she never knew what to do with, which seemed too delicate for her own use; and yet Catherine, lamenting the limitations of her understanding, felt that they were too valuable to waste and had a belief that if they passed over her head they yet contributed to the general sum of human wisdom.
“I am not magnificent,” she said mildly, wishing that she had put on another dress.
“You are sumptuous, opulent, expensive,” her father rejoined. “You look as if you had eighty thousand a year.”
In class discussions, while Morris the gold digger and Mrs. Penniman the silly aunt draw out our frustration with their mischief, it is Dr. Sloper who brings the most anger. He is truly a hateful, obstinate man. We actually wish he might be wrong, just once in the novel, but he never is. He is right, about Morris, about Mrs. Penniman, and about the effect his daughter’s money has had on her marriage prospects. What he doesn’t bargain for, is that his daughter will grow up to be as stubborn and obstinate as he. That eventually, she will grow wise by making sense of all her father’s ironic comments.
In the first chapter, we learn that Dr Sloper has had the luck of marrying for money and love, and has distinguished himself as a doctor. Then, their first son dies at three years old and his wife dies a week after giving birth to Catherine (“the little girl was a disappointment”):
“For a man whose trade was to keep people alive he had certainly done poorly in his own family; and a bright doctor who within three years loses his wife and his little boy should perhaps be prepared to see either his skill or his affection impugned. Our friend, however, escaped criticism; that is, he escaped all criticism but his own, which was the most competent and most formidible. He walked under the weight of this very private censure for the rest of his days, and bore forever the scars of a castigation to which the strongest hand he knew had treated him on the night that followed his wife’s death…”
He demands total authority and obedience from Catherine, and treats her with loathing. “Her deepest desire was to please him” the narrator writes, but “she had never succeeded beyond a certain point.” For his part, “Doctor Sloper would have liked to be proud of his daughter, but there was nothing to be proud of in poor Catherine.” This situation is toxic beyond repair. Catherine grows up like a houseplant without a window, never fully aware of why her father gives her nothing but sarcastic backhanded compliments when she so desperately wants the light of his love. Meanwhile, we know, thanks to our all-knowing catty narrator, that this man is twice as critical of himself, filled as he is with self-loathing.
It is perhaps that self-loathing that causes him to hate Morris, who like Dr Sloper as a young man, is keen to marry for money. The second half of the book is tied up in a transatlantic chess match between Morris and Dr Sloper over Catherine’s loyalty. Sloper says he will disinherit her if she marries him; Morris tries to hang on until he gives way or dies. Wills are rewritten, Alps traversed, fortunes won and lost, Morris even tries living in New Orleans, and then this endless game of chicken dissipates and leaves Catherine and Mrs. Penniman doing needlepoint in her parlor.
In the essay “The Art of Fiction,” which James published a few years later, he writes that the goal was a “sense of reality” but not, as it has been shown elsewhere, to achieve capital-R Realism. Instead, he was interested in how the slightest of impressions, if strung together with the gossamer genius of an exquisitely alert consciousness, could give readers the impression of an experience of reality. There is something in Washington Square that sparks debate and a fair bit of anachronistic psychoanalytic labeling, so the hearty discussion and passionate loathing we feel for the lot of them, is to James’s credit. He’s achieved what he set out to gain, as “a man of genius”:
Experience is never limited and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative – much more when it happens to be that of a man of genius – it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.
As it turns out, the revelation is that Catherine does develop as a character, even without her father’s or lover’s regard. While the other characters in the book never change a whit, and never love or learn, Catherine finds a way to build a life for herself. She volunteers. She has neighborhood children who love her. The city grows at her doorstep. She forgives. There are even other men, who do love her, but she refuses them. When Morris comes back around, now a 45 year old man, still broke, but with a beard and a paunch (“not that of the straight slim young man she remembered”) he doesn’t actually know what to say. Catherine doesn’t help him.
“I wanted so much—I was determined,” Morris went on. But he stopped again; it was not easy. Catherine still said nothing, and he may well have recalled with apprehension her ancient faculty of silence. She continued to look at him, however, and as she did so she made the strangest observation. It seemed to be he, and yet not he; it was the man who had been everything, and yet this person was nothing. How long ago it was—how old she had grown—how much she had lived! She had lived on something that was connected with him, and she had consumed it in doing so. This person did not look unhappy. He was fair and well-preserved, perfectly dressed, mature and complete. As Catherine looked at him, the story of his life defined itself in his eyes; he had made himself comfortable, and he had never been caught. But even while her perception opened itself to this, she had no desire to catch him; his presence was painful to her, and she only wished he would go.
“Will you not sit down?” he asked.
“I think we had better not,” said Catherine.
When he asks her why she had never married, she says, “I had nothing to gain.”