Henry James 's Washington Square And The Old, One Of The Most Popular Themes

Henry James 's Washington Square And The Old, One Of The Most Popular Themes

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In literature, both new and old, one of the most popular themes is love. Many novels, poems, and short stories explore this theme in every imaginable way. Henry James’s Washington Square and Steve Martin’s Shopgirl are worthy additions to this timeless tradition. The twist for these two novels is that both heroine’s, Catherine in Washington Square and Mirabelle in Shopgirl, fall for men that do not love them in return. At least the ladies’ love is not returned in the manner they expect. The novels were written more than a century apart. Thus the dialogue, settings, and characters are different, but the central theme of unrequited love is present in both novels.
James’s heroine Catherine Sloper is an ordinary girl. In fact, James writes of her on page 12 of Washington Square, “She was healthy, well-grown child, without a trace of her mother’s beauty. She was not ugly; she had simply a plain, dull, gentle countenance.” Catherine’s mother died when Catherine was only two years old. As a result of her mother’s death, her father, Dr. Austin Sloper, raised Catherine. Sloper dutifully cared for her, but seemed to exhibit no affection towards her. On page 13 James says, “Doctor Sloper would have liked to be proud of his daughter; but there was nothing to be proud of in poor Catherine. There was nothing, of course, to be ashamed of; but this was not enough for the doctor, who was a proud man, and would have enjoyed being able to think of his daughter as an unusual girl.” Catherine is deprived of the love of her father, and throughout James’s novel endeavors to find love from a man she believes is worthy.
In Washington Square, the suitor Catherine chooses is a young man named Morris Townsend. Morris is introduced at a family gathering w...


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... began her relationship with Ray. When Jeremy is introduced he is an unworthy, immature suitor. Upon his return to Mirabelle’s life he has become successful, and a bit more refined. On page 127 of Shopgirl, “At this point, Jeremy surpasses Mr. Ray Porter as a lover of Mirabelle, because as clumsy as he is, what he offers her is tender and true.” Jeremy is the man that will become the man of her dreams, and most importantly he loves Mirabelle in return.
Thus, in these novels, as in life, peoples stories come to different endings. Catherine dies alone, never having found love. The one she thought was “the one” wasn’t. Instead of trying again, she lets the dream of love, and being loved, slip away. Catherine never arrives at a happily ever after ending. In contrast, Mirabelle finds love and happiness with the previously discarded Jeremy, and lives happily ever after.

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