T. S. Eliot's Critique of Henry James' Washington Square

T. S. Eliot's Critique of Henry James' Washington Square

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T. S. Eliot's Critique of Henry James' Washington Square


In the article "A Prediction," by T. S. Eliot, Henry James is both criticized and praised as a writer: "His technique has received the kind of praise usually accorded to some useless, ugly and ingenious piece of carving which has taken a very long time to make; and he is widely reproached for not succeeding in doing the things that he did not attempt to do" (55). Eliot seems to feel that James has not been properly criticized, and in fact that some criticisms are contradictory and inconsistent. Perhaps critics of James have expressed themselves in these manners because James's writing is hard to identify with because it is not real.

In Washington Square, there are several components that cause the novel to come across as unrealistic. The most prominent appears to be the characters and how they are presented and interact with each other throughout the novel. The personality of each character is very hard to pinpoint. As I read through the novel, I could not figure out exactly what Doctor Sloper's motives were. Did he really dislike Morris Townsend or was he just trying to keep his daughter from marrying anyone at all? The Doctor's reasons seem sufficient enough, "If Morris Townsend has spent his own fortune in amusing himself, there is every reason to believe that he would spend yours" (71).

However, the Doctor's motives also seem curious. He waited to tell Catherine that he disliked Morris until after he had asked her to marry him, when all along the Doctor disliked Morris. In fact, it was hard to ignore the doctors snide comments about Morris that appeared consistently throughout the book. For example, at the traditional Sunday evening at Mrs. Almond's, the Doctor comments, "'He is amazingly conceited!'" (57). The Doctor comments without having really talked with Morris. He has made up his mind about Morris before he really even meets him

Regardless of James's failure to present real characters who have believable social settings, work for a living, and express emotions and opinions about the trials and tribulations that they encounter, Eliot argues that, "had James been a better hand at character, he would have missed the sensibility to the peculiar class of data which were his province" (55).

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Perhaps, if James did explain his characters better and have them appear to be more realistic, then his novel, Washington Square, would not be the same. The novel sparked anger in me as I read it because James never does fully engage his characters in real life, and maybe that emotion, or some other emotion, was the reaction from the reader that James was seeking to achieve.

Work Cited

Eliot, T. S. "A Prediction." Vanity Fair Feb. 1924: 55-56.
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