Washington Square

Washington Square Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Henry James's Washington Square. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Henry James

Henry James was born to Henry James, Sr., and Mary Walsh, both New Yorkers from wealthy backgrounds. Henry had three brothers, including noted psychologist and philosopher William James, and one sister. During Henry’s childhood, the James household traveled extensively in Europe, especially in France. His greatest literary influence was French novelist Honoré de Balzac. In the 1860s he began publishing reviews and serial fiction in publications like The Nation and Atlantic Monthly. By the 1870s, he was spending almost all of his time in Europe, where he established himself in elite international literary circles. He settled down in London, where he produced his greatest works, especially Daisy Miller (1878) and The Portrait of a Lady (1881). In the later stages of his career, he followed the style of French naturalist writers like Émile Zola and Alphonse Daudet, though his experimental approach contributed to less popular and commercial success. Many of James’s fictional works feature social clashes between “New World” (American) and “Old World” (English or other European) characters and values. He was also known for his deep exploration of his characters’ psyche. Henry James became a British subject the year before he died and was awarded the Order of Merit by King George V for his cultural contributions.
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Historical Context of Washington Square

Washington Square takes place in New York City in the 1840s, a city that was well on its way to becoming the present-day metropolis. James makes glancing references to details such as the burgeoning Irish population, an “intrusion” Aunt Penniman fears, as large numbers of immigrants fled Ireland’s 1840s famine for better opportunities in New York. The constant expansion of the city itself is also a recurrent theme, as the Slopers move uptown after watching their residential neighborhood increasingly convert to “offices, warehouses, and shipping agencies,” though they don’t venture as far uptown as Aunt Almond’s more rural neighborhood, “where pigs and chickens disported themselves.” Thus Washington Square (now a park in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village) was one of the first middle-class, professional neighborhoods in the United States, making it a setting befitting Dr. Sloper’s preoccupation with class, employment, and income.

Other Books Related to Washington Square

Washington Square’s plot is similar to that of Eugénie Grandet (1833), a novel by James’s mentor, Honoré de Balzac; it, too, features a calculating fiancé, a fortune, and a young woman who must find her own path. James may also have been influenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1844 story “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” a dark tale that includes a tyrannical father and an ill-fated romance. Finally, some of James’s other prominent fiction, like Daisy Miller and Portrait of a Lady, deal with women’s struggles to assert and maintain personal independence, as Catherine does in Washington Square.
Key Facts about Washington Square
  • Full Title: Washington Square
  • When Written: 1880
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: 1880
  • Literary Period: Realism
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Setting: New York City in the 1840s
  • Climax: Catherine defies Dr. Sloper in the Alps.
  • Antagonist: Dr. Austin Sloper
  • Point of View: Third-person omniscient

Extra Credit for Washington Square

Real-Life Triangle. The plot of Washington Square was inspired by Henry James’s friend, English actress Fanny Kemble, who told him the story—recorded in James’s private journal in 1879—of her brother’s engagement to a “dull, plain, common-place girl” with a private fortune, and the disapproving interference of the girl’s father.

Oscar-Winning Adaptation. Washington Square is one of the more frequently adapted of Henry James’s works, the most popular version being The Heiress, a 1949 film adaptation starring Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper and Montgomery Clift as Morris Townsend. The film won four Academy Awards.