Catherine's Inner Self in Henry James's Washington Square

Catherine's Inner Self in Henry James's Washington Square

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Catherine's Inner Self in Henry James's Washington Square


Much is said of the internal reality of the characters in Henry James's novel Washington Square. It is seen as a "psychological novel" where most of the action takes place in the minds of the characters. In an essay titled, "Washington Square: A Study in the Growth of an Inner Self," James W. Gargano addresses the internal reality of the character Catherine Sloper. Within the essay, Gargano argues that "James anatomizes the process by which Catherine's active, secret existence transforms her into an imaginative woman" (129). Although a few of his premises seem far-fetched, I agree with the major arguments of his critique. Most of his examples support his thesis well.

Early in the essay Gargano states that, "in James's fiction, naivete may wear the look of an empty mind, but it is often the ideal preparation for receiving life fully and impressionably" (130). Gargano then tells us that Catherine will feel more intensely because she has not known strong emotions before. According to him, "her ingenuousness is the key to her genuineness and her sense of seeing, feeling, and judging life for the first time" (130). I feel this is a key element in understanding Catherine.

Gargano also brings out how well James "traces [Catherine's] developing insight" (131) into her own nature. He refers to the part in the novel where James writes, "She watched herself as she would have watched another person, and wondered what she would do" (qtd. in Gargano 131). Then Gargano adds, "it is hard to write off as dull a young woman with such a vivid 'contact' with her own development" and Gargano also felt that "James intended the dullness to be ascribed to the bright people around her who never even glimpse her hidden abysses" (131). This is an interesting viewpoint, which, when applied to the novel, adds a deeper perception of the characters.

Some of Gargano's other premises were not as insightful for me. For example, I had trouble with what Gargano called Catherine's "transcendentalizing imagination" that causes her to create "beautiful figments" of Townsend that possess her and become the "paramount value of her life, and other attachments, no matter how strong, must somehow accommodate themselves to it." (132). This contention tends to belittle Catherine's intelligence as well as her grasp of reality.

I also disagreed with one of Gargano's conclusions that, "loss is the real goal for which James's central characters are secretly striving, that they engage life only to see that it falls below their lofty expectations and that mastery and transcendence are gained by renunciation" (135).

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The strong character that Catherine has become by the end of the novel clearly belies this statement. She has dignity and respect for herself, which this conclusion does not support.

Work Cited

Gargano, James W. "Washington Square: A Study in the Growth of An Inner Self." Critical Essays on Henry James: The Early Novels. Ed. James Gargano. Boston: G.K. Hall &Co., 1987. 129-136.
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