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In Washington Square', Henry James used a refined technique of narration, language, symbolism and irony as he explored the psychological dimensions of his characters' actions, motivations and interpersonal relationships. He did so as he confronted the tragedy of the immorality of human beings, personified in the characters of Dr. Sloper and Morris Townsend, in dominating the spirit of Sloper's daughter, Catherine, for their own ends.
In other works of fiction where the oppressive circumstances of protagonists usually arise from failures of society and within the specific individual there is often an optimism to the extent that it is suggested that progress might eventually lift the individual or mankind beyond the scope of the type of situations depicted. In Washington Square', however, James' depiction of Catherine's tragedy could well be interpreted, at a universal level, as our susceptibility to the manipulative and domineering elements in human nature combined with those factors which drive us with passionate longing for another. Our hopes for an enlightened perspective of Catherine's situation diminish as she confronts an environment of emotional, psychological and motivational disregard and cruelty displayed in numerous situations of dialogue, interviews and conniving. We recognize, however, that Catherine's sufferings are intrinsic to human nature as she is depicted also as a protagonist who displays substance and a willingness to develop her perceptions of human behaviour at the cost of being isolated physically, psychologically and emotionally.
Catherine's dilemma begins in an overtly conventional yet dismal setting. This is the ordered and understated fashionable New York setting where she is victim to her father's calculated disregard and domineering behaviour and of the perceptions others have of her given their economic and social positions. She is, in Sloper's words, "absolutely unattractive." She is twenty, yet has never before, as Sloper points out, received suitors in the house. Mrs. Almond's protestations that Catherine is not unappealing are little more than a matter of form and she is admonished by Sloper for suggesting he give Catherine "more justice." Mrs. Penniman, for her part, readily perceives that without Catherine's full inheritance, Morris Townsend would have "nothing to enjoy" and proceeds to establish her role in appeasing her brother and giving incoherent counsel to the courtship between Catherine and Townsend. For Townsend himself, Catherine's "inferior characteristics" are a matter of course and a means to a financial end.
The characters perceive that unfeigned love for Catherine is close to an impossibility.
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Our observations continue owing to the skillful third person narration employed by James. This same narration allows us to see emerge a character working through the emotions related to her situation and moving slowly past her "affectionate, docile [and] obedient" perceptions, as best as she is able. One of the ways Catherine's maturity begins to develop is in her inability to imagine some form of control at the abuse of her father where the unwarranted devotion Catherine feels for this situation, symbolized in the allusion to Shakespeare's King Lear' and his contorted relationships with his daughters, portrayed within the numerous conversations between Catherine and Sloper, is the basis of her life's greatest dilemma. Given that Sloper rarely addressed his daughter save in the ironical form she had to dissect her pleasure from the situation rarely knowing what to do with the onslaught of irony and her reactions to this nor with the way she would decide to behave. She had thought that "Heaven would invent some way of reconciling all things; the dignity of her father's errors and the sweetness of her own confidence, the strict performance of her filial duties and the enjoyment of Morris Townsend's affections." However she was able to progress past her fear and responsibility towards her father in favour of her thoughts of commitment to Townsend. "'You will cleave to me?' said Morris.'You know you are your own mistress -- you are of age.' 'Ah, Morris!' she murmured, for all answer; or rather not for all, for she put her hand into his own". Catherine continues, however, to be unable to reconcile her moving away from her responsibility towards her father with her equally unwarranted love for Townsend given the complexity of these character's motivations.
Sloper and Townsend, in accordance with their independent motivations, proceed to transform the marriage plot into seeing it as a mathematical problem to be solved in terms of convention, social acceptability and financial security. Sloper states, "Catherine and her young man are my surfaces; I have taken their measure." Hence he sees people as entities to be classified and not individuals. In considering his options about Catherine, Townsend also considers the variable of the problems and does not wish to be left with an unappealing and "impoverished" wife; a matter "mathematically proved." He understands that Sloper continues to present the unknown variable and retreats with "calculated brutality." The marriage plot is symbolically and mathematically concluded according to Sloper and Townsend's independent motives and they succumb to the geometry of their own devices.
Catherine defies the geometry of the calculations of her father and retreats from his control upon returning from Europe remaining unworldly enough to understand that the "purest love and truth" she sees in her lover's eyes are false. That is, until Townsend has abandoned her. She states of Townsend's letter that is was ".beautifully written. She kept it for many years after this "and when her sense of the bitterness of its meaning and the hollowness of its tone had grown less acute, [admired] its grace of expression."
Within the context of the marriage plot the characters of Washington Square' fail to fulfil their main desires. Catherine does not fulfil her desire for marriage and motherhood. Sloper fails in his wish to have Catherine marry a suitable husband as she ultimately rejects all suitors and Townsend's later advances given the enormity of the emotional impact of his selfishness thus leading to his loneliness and decline. Townsend fails in his desire to marry a woman with an income to finance his every wish and Mrs. Penniman does not succeed in her desire of Catherine making a secret marriage.
Catherine alone, however, succeeds in escaping the delusion of self-classification and the classification of others and the will to dominate or be dominated by the spirit of an individual. She is depicted finally as a person who has been able to mature past the effects of the brutal coldness of conventional high society which James depicts so adequately with the use of narration, language, irony and symbolism. He therefore allows us to interpret her character as one which has not wholly succumbed to the calculated dominant and manipulative elements in human nature but has resigned, even in isolation, to her own choices and self-education; "for life as it were."