Washington Square

by

Henry James

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Washington Square: Chapter 18 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
That evening Catherine sits in front of the fire for more than an hour, thinking. Recognizing Aunt Penniman’s foolishness makes her feel “old and grave.” She still respects her father, and feels that displeasing him “would be a misdemeanor analogous to an act of profanity in a great temple,” but she believes she must follow through on her “terrible plan.” When she goes to Dr. Sloper’s study, at first she’s unable to speak, but finally she admits that she has been writing to Morris and would like to see him again; she doesn’t intend to give him up.
Recognizing Aunt Penniman’s foolish behavior seems to have prepared Catherine for the possibility that her father, too, is wrong, and that it’s right for her to go against him. Doing so still feels like a “profanity,” however, and it’s very hard for her to do, given how much pleasing Dr. Sloper and believing in him has meant to Catherine’s sense of wellbeing over the years. Taking this step toward independence is very significant for Catherine’s character development.
Themes
Gaining Independence Theme Icon
Loss and Idealization Theme Icon
Reason, Romanticism, and Blind Spots Theme Icon
Women’s Limited Freedoms Theme Icon
Related Quotes
To Catherine’s surprise, Dr. Sloper greets her confession with an embrace. He explains that if she wishes to make him happy, she has only to give Morris up, and it would be better for Catherine to be unhappy for a few months than for a lifetime. He asks her to trust his assessment that Morris is “a selfish idler.” Catherine asks only to see Morris so that she can explain and ask him to wait until Dr. Sloper has a chance to know him better. She adds that they can wait “a long time,” and Dr. Sloper says that they can wait until he dies, if they like. Catherine is horrified. Dr. Sloper’s words are so authoritative for Catherine “that her very thoughts were capable of obeying him,” but she tells him that if she doesn’t marry before his death, she won’t after.
Catherine’s attempts to reason with her father are not going as she had hoped. Dr. Sloper’s uncharacteristic warmth throws her off her guard, and he effectively pits his own happiness against Catherine’s and asks her to choose, manipulating her gentle nature. Going against his wishes in any way feels completely unnatural to Catherine.
Themes
Gaining Independence Theme Icon
Loss and Idealization Theme Icon
Reason, Romanticism, and Blind Spots Theme Icon
Women’s Limited Freedoms Theme Icon
Catherine tries not to show emotion, since her goal is “to effect some gentle, gradual change in [her father’s] intellectual perception” of Morris’s character, but she has exhausted her arguments. She says she will see Morris once, and Dr. Sloper tells her that will make her “an ungrateful, cruel child” who will have given “your old father the greatest pain of his life.” Catherine weeps as he guides her out of his study. He feels sorry for Catherine, “but he [is] so sure he [is] right.” After Catherine leaves, Dr. Sloper thinks, “I believe she will stick!” and resolves to see it through, as the scenario promises “entertainment.”
Catherine is trying to meet Dr. Sloper on his own ground, appealing to his reason, yet, ironically, her father responds by manipulating her emotions and exploiting her deep sense of duty and loyalty. He’s not without pity for Catherine, but his belief in his own rightness trumps all else. Moreover, he finds his daughter’s uncharacteristic determination “entertain[ing],” suggesting that his compassion for her doesn’t run very deep.
Themes
Gaining Independence Theme Icon
Loss and Idealization Theme Icon
Reason, Romanticism, and Blind Spots Theme Icon