In Washington Square, Henry James confronts us with an exceptionally hopeless kind of tragedy. The oppressive circumstances of protagonists usually arise from failures of individual or social enlightenment. Such stories are optimistic to the extent that they suggest that progress might eventually lift mankind beyond the scope of the type of situations depicted. In Washington Square, however, truth itself is the oppressor -- a universal truth of human nature which, a century after publication, we are still loath to recognize. Catherine's tragedy is our universal susceptibility to the superficial: the chasm between the qualities that our reflective sensibilities recognize as good and admirable, and those that possess us with passionate longing for another. As Catherine resignedly observes (in connection with her father's frigidity): "we can't govern our affections" (p. 141). Thus, evil can seduce us, and virtue leave us cold.
When this is the driving element in a tragic tale, a reader's search for the enlightened perspective is vain. There is no improving lesson; there will be no progress; and reiterations of the tragic pattern will never cease. The malign force behind the hero's sufferings is intrinsic to human nature.
In most works of fiction, by contrast, truth, or enlightenment, is an ally. In Billy Budd, Billy's goodness exculpates him (although the military code, impervious to natural justice, prevails). The Red Badge of Courage, as a rejection of the glorification of war, implicitly invites the hope that wars may end. In The Awakening, it is social prejudice that chafes at the heroine. In Sister Carrie, although material want is the initial challenge...
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...d, reflecting the reader's discomfort with Dr. Sloper's ruthless incisiveness, asks: "Doesn't geometry treat of surfaces?" (P. 112.) The answer from Dr. Sloper, the man viewed by society and by the narrator as "never [having] been wrong in his life" (p. 184), professor of the bunk doctrine of physiognomy, expresses our immortal delusion: "Yes; but it treats of them profoundly." (P. 112.)
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Random House, Inc., 2000.
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. London: Penguin Group, 1994.
Dreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. New York: Random House, Inc., 1999.
James, Henry. Washington Square. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Melville, Herman. Billy Budd and Other Tales. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998.
Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1993.
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