Washington Square – a study guide

study resources, plot, film version, and web links

Washington Square (1880) is a short novel originally published as a serial in Cornhill Magazine and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. It is a structurally simple tragicomedy that recounts the conflict between a dull but sweet daughter and her brilliant, domineering father. She has a handsome young suitor – but the father disapproves of him. There is a battle of wills – all conducted within the confines of their elegant town house. Who wins out in the end? You will be surprised by the outcome. This is a masterpiece of social commentary, with a sensitive picture of a woman’s life. The plot of the novel is based upon a true story told to James by his close friend, the British actress Fanny Kemble. The book is often compared to Jane Austen’s work for the clarity and grace of its prose and its intense focus on family relationships.

first American edition 1880

Washington Square – plot summary

Dr. Austin Sloper is a rich and intelligent widower who lives in Washington Square, New York with his only surviving child, Catherine. She is a sweet-natured woman who is a great disappointment to her father, being physically plain and, he believes, mentally dull. Sloper’s beloved wife, along with a promising young son, died many years before. His busybody sister, the widowed Lavinia Penniman, is the only other member of the doctor’s household.

Washington SquareOne day, Catherine meets the charming Morris Townsend at a party and is swept off her feet. Morris courts Catherine, aided by Mrs. Penniman, who loves melodrama. Dr. Sloper strongly disapproves, believing him to be after Catherine’s money. When Catherine and Morris announce their engagement, he checks into Morris’s background and finds him to be penniless and parasitic. The doctor forbids his daughter to marry Townsend, and the loyal Catherine cannot bring herself to choose between her father and her fiancé.

Dr. Sloper understands Catherine’s strait and pities her a little, but also finds an urbane entertainment in the situation. In an effort to resolve the matter, he announces that he will not leave any money to Catherine if she marries Morris. He then takes her on a twelve month grand tour of Europe to distract her attention from Townsend.

During their months abroad, he mentions Catherine’s engagement only twice; once while they are alone together in the Alps, and again on the eve of their return voyage. On both occasions, Catherine holds firm in her desire to marry. After she refuses for a second time to give Morris up, Sloper sarcastically compares her to a sheep fattened up for slaughter. With this, he finally goes too far: Catherine recognises his contempt, withdraws from him, and prepares to bestow all her love and loyalty on Morris.

Upon their return however, when Catherine convinces her fiance that her father will never relent, Townsend breaks off the relationship. Catherine is devastated, then eventually recovers her equanimity, but is never able to forget the injury.

Many years pass. Catherine refuses two respectable offers of marriage and grows into a middle aged spinster. Dr. Sloper finally dies and leaves her a sharply reduced income in his will out of fear that Townsend will reappear. In fact, Morris – now fat, balding, cold-eyed, but still somewhat attractive – does eventually pay a call on Catherine, hoping to effect a reconcilation. But she calmly rebuffs his overtures. The novel concludes with “Catherine … picking up her morsel of fancy-work, had seated herself with it again — for life, as it were.”

Washington Square – study resources

Washington Square Washington Square – Oxford World Classics – Amazon UK

Washington Square Washington Square – Oxford World Classics – Amazon US

RWashington Square Washington Square – Wordsworth Classics – Amazon UK

Washington Square Washington Square – Wordsworth Classics – Amazon US

Washington Square Washington Square – Brodie’s Notes

Washington Square Washington Square – York Notes

Washington Square Washington Square – 1998 film adaptation on DVD

Washington Square Washington Square – eBook versions at Project Gutenberg

Washington Square Washington Square – audioBook (unabridged) at Amazon UK

Washington Square Washington Square – audioBook at LibriVox

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK

Washington Square Henry James – biographical notes

Red button Henry James at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links

Red button Henry James at Mantex – tutorials, web links, study resources

Washington Square – film version

1949 William Wyler screen adaptation

An all star cast of Olivia de Havilland as Catherine, Ralph Richardson as Doctor Sloper, and Montgomery Clift as Morris Townsend. Aaron Copland is credited with having composed the theme music, but he denied it.

See reviews of the film at the Internet Movie Database.

Washington Square – principal characters
Dr Austin Sloper a successful, rich, and satirical doctor
Catherine Sloper his unmarried daughter
Lavinia Penniman Catherine’s intefering widowed aunt
Morris Townsend a handsome young fortune-hunter
Mrs Almond Sloper’s married sister
Marian Almond Mrs Almond’s vivacious daughter
Mrs Montgomery Morris Townsend’s impoverished sister

Henry James's study

Henry James’s study

Washington Square – further reading

Red button Theodora Bosanquet, Henry James at Work, University of Michigan Press, 2007.

Red button F.W. Dupee, Henry James: Autobiography, Princeton University Press, 1983.

Red button Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life, HarperCollins, 1985.

Red button Philip Horne (ed), Henry James: A Life in Letters, Viking/Allen Lane, 1999.

Red button Henry James, The Letters of Henry James, Adamant Media Corporation, 2001.

Red button Fred Kaplan, Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999

Red button F.O. Matthieson (ed), The Notebooks of Henry James, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Critical commentary

Red button Elizabeth Allen, A Woman’s Place in the Novels of Henry James London: Macmillan Press, 1983.

Red button Ian F.A. Bell, Henry James and the Past, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993.

Red button Millicent Bell, Meaning in Henry James, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 1993.

Red button Harold Bloom (ed), Modern Critical Views: Henry James, Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.

Red button Kirstin Boudreau, Henry James’s Narrative Technique, Macmillan, 2010.

Red button J. Donald Crowley and Richard A. Hocks (eds), The Wings of the Dove, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978.

Red button Victoria Coulson, Henry James, Women and Realism, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Daniel Mark Fogel, A Companion to Henry James Studies, Greenwood Press, 1993.

Red button Virginia C. Fowler, Henry James’s American Girl: The Embroidery on the Canvas, Madison (Wis): University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

Red button Jonathan Freedman, The Cambridge Companion to Henry James, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Judith Fryer, The Faces of Eve: Women in the Nineteenth Century American Novel, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976

Red button Roger Gard (ed), Henry James: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1968.

Red button Tessa Hadley, Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Barbara Hardy, Henry James: The Later Writing (Writers & Their Work), Northcote House Publishers, 1996.

Red button Richard A. Hocks, Henry James: A study of the short fiction, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

Red button Donatella Izzo, Portraying the Lady: Technologies of Gender in the Short Stories of Henry James, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Red button Colin Meissner, Henry James and the Language of Experience, Cambridge University Press, 2009

Red button John Pearson (ed), The Prefaces of Henry James, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Red button Richard Poirer, The Comic Sense of Henry James, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Red button Hugh Stevens, Henry James and Sexuality, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Merle A. Williams, Henry James and the Philosophical Novel, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Red button Judith Woolf, Henry James: The Major Novels, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Red button Ruth Yeazell (ed), Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays, Longmans, 1994.

Film version

2010 colour re-make of 1949 version

Other works by Henry James

Henry James The Aspern PapersThe Aspern Papers (1888) is a psychological drama set in Venice which centres on the tussle for control of a great writer’s correspondence. An elderly lady, ex-lover of the writer, seeks a husband for her daughter. But the potential purchaser of the papers is a dedicated bachelor. Money is also at stake – but of course not discussed overtly. There is a refined battle of wills between them. Who will win in the end? As usual, James keeps the reader guessing. The novella is a masterpiece of subtle narration, with an ironic twist in its outcome. This collection of stories also includes three of his accomplished long short stories – The Private Life, The Middle Years, and The Death of the Lion.
Henry James The Aspern Papers Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James The Aspern Papers Buy the book from Amazon US


Henry James The Spoils of PoyntonThe Spoils of Poynton (1896) is a short novel which centres on the contents of a country house, and the question of who is the most desirable person to inherit it via marriage. The owner Mrs Gereth is being forced to leave her home to make way for her son and his greedy and uncultured fiancee. Mrs Gereth develops a subtle plan to take as many of the house’s priceless furnishings with her as possible. But things do not go quite according to plan. There are some very witty social ironies, and a contest of wills which matches nouveau-riche greed against high principles. There’s also a spectacular finale in which nobody wins out.
Henry James The Spoils of Poynton Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James The Spoils of Poynton Buy the book from Amazon US


Henry James Daisy MillerDaisy Miller (1879) is a key story from James’s early phase in which a spirited young American woman travels to Europe with her wealthy but commonplace mother. Daisy’s innocence and her audacity challenge social conventions, and she seems to be compromising her reputation by her independent behaviour. But when she later dies in Rome the reader is invited to see the outcome as a powerful sense of a great lost potential. This novella is a great study in understatement and symbolic power.
Daisy Miller Buy the book from Amazon UK
Daisy Miller Buy the book from Amazon US

Henry James – web links

Henry James  web links Henry James at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides, tutorials on the Complete Tales, book reviews. bibliographies, and web links.

Henry James web links The Complete Works
Sixty books in one 13.5 MB Kindle eBook download for £1.92 at Amazon.co.uk. The complete novels, stories, travel writing, and prefaces. Also includes his autobiographies, plays, and literary criticism – with illustrations.

Henry James web links The Ladder – a Henry James website
A collection of eTexts of the tales, novels, plays, and prefaces – with links to available free eTexts at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere.

Red button A Hyper-Concordance to the Works
Japanese-based online research tool that locates the use of any word or phrase in context. Find that illusive quotable phrase.

Henry James web links The Henry James Resource Center
A web site with biography, bibliographies, adaptations, archival resources, suggested reading, and recent scholarship.

Henry James web links Online Books Page
A collection of online texts, including novels, stories, travel writing, literary criticism, and letters.

Henry James web links Henry James at Project Gutenberg
A major collection of eTexts, available in a variety of eBook formats.

Henry James web links The Complete Letters
Archive of the complete correspondence (1855-1878) work in progress – published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Henry James web links The Scholar’s Guide to Web Sites
An old-fashioned but major jumpstation – a website of websites and resouces.

Henry James web links Henry James – The Complete Tales
Tutorials on the complete collection of over one hundred tales, novellas, and short stories.

Henry James web links Henry James on the Internet Movie Database
Adaptations of James’s novels and stories for the cinema and television – in various languages. Full details of directors and actors, production features, film reviews, box office, and even quizzes.

© Roy Johnson 2010

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