Washington Square

As of five minutes ago I have finished Washington Square by Henry James. Before taking this novel on I have read Turn of the Screw and The Beldonald Holbien by him. My impressions of the former were that of a story with an almost unlimited number of interpretations while those of the latter were that of a story whose existence solidified the destructive relationship between art, beauty, and life.

This novel however cannot be explained through either description. It exists rather for a different purpose. As I mentioned initially I have only just finished it and still need time to process what exactly happened. The central plot points are easy enough to outline and the general motivations of each character are clearly explained but the role of the narrator and his purpose is hazy to me to say the least. It is clear that there is a narrator, whom frequently refers to himself and his decisions in structuring his telling of the story (I presume it is a he as Henry James is a he). But ultimately our narrator defines a few plot arches in telling the story that in retrospect focuses solely around the life of our leading protagonist, Catherine Sloper. She is of no considerable talent or beauty and has little to be proud of save her inheritance, and yet she is capable of annoying nearly the entirety of the cast of characters surrounding her.

A conclusion that can be made from such a story is that those who do not prescribe to the expectations of society are ultimately silenced by them. Perhaps silenced not by death but by solitude. Catherine was manipulated so much by the people around her that in the freedom of her later years she cannot articulate, even to herself what it is that she wants. She refuses to take Morris back perhaps because she never forgave him, perhaps because even in death she is obedient to her father, or perhaps because she feels that despite all she has done in her life she doesn’t deserve an ending other than what she has chosen, solitude.

On the other hand our narrator doesn’t seem to have a particularly insightful understanding of Morris. Did he leave her for the reasons outlined? For her benefit? Or perhaps he left her because his own greed was not going to be quenched by the prospects of marrying her. I can’t perceive him as completely innocent in this, there seems to be malicious intent under the surface.

Ultimately what I like about James is this vague notion of finality we are given not to mention the lack of character motivations provided. But regardless one cannot forget the title, Washington Square, the location that defines the expectations of its residence and the desires to become residence. An idea of New York that is sadly not so buried in history.

This is one thought, I’d love others…


2 responses to “Washington Square

  1. Pingback: The future of Cover Art « Comparative Blogging Foundation

  2. Interesting post on Henry James. I found this post by following the link to your new blog (I was initially interested in your thread about how the internet will change the face of publishing). In some ways, I think that Henry James is a very psychological novelist, but it’s more the psychology of details, of understated gestures, of glances–like in Proust–than of motivations, as you rightly state.

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