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 conflict with Catherine’s father, Dr. Sloper, over the implication that Morris is an unemployed fortune-hunter, James suggests that early American society more broadly was also navigating its own identity crisis with regard to class and the proper accumulation and use of wealth.
Catherine’s father is an upper-class man of some degree of leisure, even though he has a profession. Sloper has earned his living as a doctor of considerable skill, but his wife’s fortune enabled him to set himself up in practice, and he doesn’t really need the money he makes: “This purpose [of practicing medicine] had not been preponderantly to make money—it had been rather to learn something and to do something.” Class markers are a sticking point for Dr. Sloper—that is, in particular, he hates “vulgarity,” or ostentatious excess. This comes up with regard to Catherine’s showy wardrobe: “It made him fairly grimace, in private, to think that a child of his should be both ugly and overdressed.” Sloper regards it as fine to enjoy the fruits of wealth (as he does his own cigars and wine cellar, and his ability to spend an entire year traveling Europe), as long as one doesn’t appear to do so too obviously. Thus Dr. Sloper’s attitude toward his own wealth is a conflicted one. His position arguably owes as much to unearned wealth as to his own hard work and skill, and he enjoys the rewards of wealth while scorning the open display of such.
In Dr. Sloper’s view, Morris Townsend’s lack of an earned income makes him problematic. When Morris comes to call at Washington Square, Morris’s cousin, Arthur, explains that Morris is searching for a profession. Catherine is puzzled by this; she “had never heard of a young man—of the upper class—in this situation.” Catherine interprets Morris’s professional rootlessness as regrettable and out of the ordinary—a problem to be solved. He is a prime example of someone who neither “earns [his] income” nor “makes believe that [he] earns it.” Dr. Sloper imagines that he’s comfortable with the possibility of Catherine marrying a relatively poor man, and he tries to convince himself that it’s wrong to accuse such men of being mercenaries. “[I]f a penniless swain who could give a good account of himself should enter the lists, he should be judged quite upon his personal merits.” When such a “swain” actually comes knocking, however, Dr. Sloper is dissatisfied with the “account” he gives of himself. He tells Aunt Penniman: “[Townsend] is not what I call a gentleman. […] He is a plausible coxcomb.” Townsend, in other words, doesn’t act like a gentleman, but he nonetheless has pretensions of being one. Yet Dr. Sloper struggles to articulate his objections to Townsend, beyond these fumbling impressions. When Morris approaches Sloper to say that he and Catherine are engaged, Dr. Sloper finds it “vulgar” to say what he really thinks, telling Morris: “I don’t say that [you are mercenary]. […] I say simply that you belong to the wrong category.’” He declines to elaborate on what that wrong category is, however. Perhaps this is because his own conflicted category—that is, the fact that he enjoys both professional distinction and leisured privilege—complicates his critique of Morris’s position.
Washington Square is set against a backdrop of a young city seething with constant economic growth and population change—something its main characters must struggle to keep up with. New York City as a whole is struggling with its identity as a place of both restrained leisure and commercial striving. The Slopers move to Washington Square precisely because their previous downtown neighborhood is becoming dominated by “offices, warehouses, and shipping agencies”; those who desire to live among “quiet and genteel retirement” must move uptown, to places of “established repose” like Washington Square. Those who want to keep up with New York’s explosive growth must have a restless, pioneering spirit, ready to uproot themselves every few years if they want to be in the liveliest neighborhoods and have “all the latest improvements.” As Morris’s cousin Arthur Townsend explains to Catherine, “That’s the way to live in New York—to move every three or four years […] it’s a great thing to keep up with the new things.” The demographic face of New York is changing, too, as evidenced by the fact that Aunt Penniman avoids the Battery because of the “[exposure] to intrusion from the Irish emigrants,” and she remembers a certain restaurant because of its black proprietor, a relative novelty. In all these ways, the ever-changing shape, size, and makeup of New York City reflects, on a broader scale, Dr. Sloper’s own discomfort with the uncategorizable Morris Townsend.
Catherine’s engagement to Morris finally collapses under a combination of pressures—especially her father’s disdain for Morris’s social status, and the fact that Morris really does desire Catherine’s fortune. The latter fact doesn’t discount the possibility that Morris has at least some genuine affection for Catherine. However, the novel never makes Morris’s romantic sentiments clear, suggesting that in the world of New York’s upper class in the 1840s, “mercenary” concerns were coming to dominate all else.
Class, Wealth, and Social Status ThemeTracker
Class, Wealth, and Social Status Quotes in Washington Square
Her great indulgence of it was really the desire of a rather inarticulate nature to manifest itself; she sought to be eloquent in her garments, and to make up for her diffidence of speech by a fine frankness of costume. But if she expressed herself in her clothes it is certain that people were not to blame for not thinking her a witty person. It must be added that though she had the expectation of a fortune—Dr. Sloper for a long time had been making twenty thousand dollars a year by his profession and laying aside the half of it—the amount of money at her disposal was not greater than the allowance made to many poorer girls. In those days in New York there were still a few altar-fires flickering in the temple of Republican simplicity, and Dr. Sloper would have been glad to see his daughter present herself, with a classic grace, as a priestess of this mild faith. It made him fairly grimace, in private, to think that a child of his should be both ugly and overdressed. For himself, he was fond of the good things of life, and he made a considerable use of them; but he had a dread of vulgarity and even a theory that it was increasing in the society that surrounded him.
“He is not what I call a gentleman. He has not the soul of one. He is extremely insinuating; but it's a vulgar nature. I saw through it in a minute. He is altogether too familiar—I hate familiarity. He is a plausible coxcomb.”
“Ah, well,” said Mrs. Almond; ‘if you make up your mind so easily, it’s a great advantage.”
“I don’t make up my mind easily. What I tell you is the result of thirty years of observation; and in order to be able to form that judgment in a single evening, I have had to spend a lifetime in study.”
“Very possibly you are right. But the thing is for Catherine to see it.”
“I will present her with a pair of spectacles!” said the Doctor.
“And therefore, you mean, I am mercenary—I only want your daughter’s money.”
“I don’t say that. I am not obliged to say it; and to say it, save under stress of compulsion, would be very bad taste. I say simply that you belong to the wrong category.”
“But your daughter doesn’t marry a category,” Townsend urged, with his handsome smile. “She marries an individual—an individual whom she is so good as to say she loves.”
“An individual who offers so little in return!”
“Is it possible to offer more than the most tender affection and a lifelong devotion?” the young man demanded.
“It depends how we take it. It is possible to offer a few other things besides, and not only is it possible, but it’s usual. A lifelong devotion is measured after the fact; and meanwhile it is customary in these cases to give a few material securities. What are yours? A very handsome face and figure, and a very good manner. They are excellent as far as they go, but they don’t go far enough.”
The Doctor eyed her a moment. “You women are all the same! But the type to which your brother belongs was made to be the ruin of you, and you were made to be its handmaids and victims. The sign of the type in question is the determination—sometimes terrible in its quiet intensity—to accept nothing of life but its pleasures, and to secure these pleasures chiefly by the aid of your complaisant sex. Young men of this class never do anything for themselves that they can get other people to do for them, and it is the infatuation, the devotion, the superstition of others, that keeps them going. These others in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred are women. What our young friends chiefly insist upon is that someone else shall suffer for them; and women do that sort of thing, as you must know, wonderfully well.” The Doctor paused a moment, and then he added abruptly, “You have suffered immensely for your brother!”
“When persons are going to be married, they oughtn’t to think so much about business. You shouldn’t think about cotton, you should think about me. You can go to New Orleans some other time—there will always be plenty of cotton. It isn’t the moment to choose—we have waited too long already.” She spoke more forcibly and volubly than he had ever heard her, and she held his arm in her two hands.
“You said you wouldn’t make a scene!” cried Morris. “I call this a scene.”
“It’s you that are making it! I have never asked you anything before. We have waited too long already.” And it was a comfort to her to think that she had hitherto asked so little; it seemed to make her right to insist the greater now.
Catherine, at the time of these events, had left her thirtieth year well behind her, and had quite taken her place as an old maid. Her father would have preferred she should marry, and he once told her that he hoped she would not be too fastidious. […] Catherine, however, became an admirable old maid. She formed habits, regulated her days upon a system of her own, interested herself in charitable institutions, asylums, hospitals, and aid-societies, and went generally, with an even and noiseless step, about the rigid business of her life.