Bette Howland's Criticism of Henry James's Washington Square

Bette Howland's Criticism of Henry James's Washington Square

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Bette Howland's Criticism of Henry James's Washington Square


Bette Howland, in her criticism of Henry James's Washington Square, focuses on two different aspects of the story's development. She begins by impressing on the reader how Henry James himself viewed his creation and then plunges into the history behind the plot. In doing this, she describes how Henry James has used irony to make this story his own creation. Half way through the article she changes directions and shows how Washington Square is the forerunner of his other novels. She describes how they all have the same basic plot.

According to Bette Howland, Henry James never cared for his novel Washington Square. He refers to it as "A poorish thing" and "a tale purely American" (1). In fact, when he compiled his stories in his New York Edition he omitted this story from its pages. He claimed that, "I've tried to read over Washington Square and I can't and I fear it must go" (1). Ms. Howland claims that it is "a fitting irony. You might say that like Dr. Sloper in the novel, James disinherited his heroine, he cut her out of his will" (1).

The author of the criticism then focuses on how Henry James received the anecdote that he would transform into his novel. Henry James twists the basic story into his own work by way of irony. Dr. Sloper is at the center of James's irony. While Dr. Sloper criticizes Catherine as a simpleton who is "ugly and overdressed" (3) he states, "I expect nothing . . . so that if she gives me a surprise, it will be all clear gain. If she doesn't, it will be no loss" (3). This is ironical because he himself played a part in her creation. Bette Howland states that while Washington Square may lack the 'supersubtle' nuances of Henry James' future novels, it "offers his irony at its most efficient. The novel is a system of ironies a closed system. . . James is always doing two things at once. Except for Catherine, the characters are always describing themselves and each other . . . and everything they say cuts both ways" (5).

Bette Howland also examines the similarities present between Washington Square and The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. In the four novels, Henry James uses his favorite configuration of a triangle.

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The stories all have an heiress, a fortune hunter, and an accomplice. This is not the only characteristic of the Jamesian plot. There is also the Jamesian economy to recognize (15). "At the beginning, the good heroines are all in the dark; by the end, they are the only ones who see" (15).

Bette Howland's essay on Washington Square explores two different aspects in the development of the novel. While at times her thoughts become somewhat disorganized, she brings important insight into the development of Henry James's novels. At times, she seems to give the novel more credit then Henry James ever did. Ms Howland provides a refreshing twist to Henry James's family plot.

Work Cited

Howland, Bette. "Washington Square, the family plot."

First Search. 28 September 2005
<http://firstsearch.oclc.org/FETCH:ml/fs_fulltext.htm%22:/fstxt20.htm>
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