Washington Square

by

Henry James

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Themes and Colors
Gaining Independence Theme Icon
Loss and Idealization Theme Icon
Class, Wealth, and Social Status Theme Icon
Reason, Romanticism, and Blind Spots Theme Icon
Women’s Limited Freedoms Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Washington Square, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Gaining Independence

Throughout Henry James’s 1880 novel Washington Square, 22-year-old heiress Catherine Sloper equates her welfare and happiness with pleasing her father, the clever, disdainful Dr. Sloper: “She was extremely fond of her father and very much afraid of him […] Her deepest desire was to please him, and her conception of happiness was to know that she had succeeded in pleasing him.” This same subservience characterizes Catherine’s relationships with her aunt, Lavinia Penniman

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Loss and Idealization

Washington Square is a story characterized by loss from its first pages. Dr. Sloper, an acclaimed physician, suffers the stigma of his young son’s death and later that of his beloved wife following the birth of his daughter, Catherine. Dr. Sloper’s grief has devastating effects on his relationship with Catherine, who idolizes her father despite his aloofness; it stunts her potential for a healthy marriage and ultimately leads to her own crushing disillusionment…

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Class, Wealth, and Social Status

At the beginning of Washington Square, James describes the young United States as “a country in which, to play a social part, you must either earn your income or make believe that you earn it.” One of the novel’s central problems emerges around the fact that Catherine Sloper’s suitor, Morris Townsend, doesn’t even pretend that he earns his income—a fact that contributes to the ultimate unraveling of their romance. Through Morris’s ongoing…

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Reason, Romanticism, and Blind Spots

Henry James presents Dr. Austin Sloper’s character as adhering to “an idea of the beauty of reason.” This guiding principle “set a limit to his recognition […] of Catherine’s possibilities,” and, as the novel goes on to show, of Morris Townsend’s potential as Catherine’s suitor. Lavinia Penniman, Dr. Sloper’s sister and Catherine’s guardian, is presented as likewise hobbled by devotion to a particular worldview, although hers is romantic and sentimental rather…

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Women’s Limited Freedoms

From the time Catherine Sloper is born, her sex is a letdown to her father, Dr. Sloper, and her upbringing is marked by tacit—and sometimes explicit—rejection due to her failure to live up to rigid expectations of femininity. Because Catherine is not as beautiful and clever as socially successful women are supposed to be, Dr. Sloper assumes that Catherine’s inheritance is the only thing that would attract a suitor, and this assumption poisons her…

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