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, and her sometime fiancé, Morris Townsend, as well. Though Catherine is often described as weak and pliable, she gradually tests her independence from the overshadowing personalities in her life and builds up her courage. Through Catherine’s journey, James shows that true independence is gained primarily through quiet, hard-won moments rather than dramatic, climactic triumphs.
Catherine demonstrates an independent streak from the beginning of the novel, though it’s subtle and timid at first. During the ride home from her cousin Marian Almond’s engagement party, the only commentary Catherine offers on the evening she first met Morris Townsend is: “I am rather tired.” The narrator comments that for nearly the first time in her life, Catherine “made an indirect answer; and the beginning of a period of dissimulation is certainly a significant date.” For Catherine, this minor “dissimulation”—hiding the fact that she’s actually preoccupied with thoughts of Townsend—represents her willingness to keep certain things entirely to herself, a small but significant act of independence.
Later, Catherine insists that when Morris comes to propose to her, he must do it in her own parlor, not in a secret rendezvous: “She hesitated awhile; then at last—‘You must come to the house,’ she said; ‘I am not afraid of that.’ ‘I would rather it were in the Square,’ the young man urged. ‘You know how empty it is, often. No one will see us.’ ‘I don’t care who sees us! But leave me now.’” This isn’t simply about a meeting location; Catherine refuses to conduct her romance with Morris in secrecy, since truthfulness is central to her character.
When Catherine faces opposition from her father, she puts her fledgling independence to the test, but she does so through careful deliberation and personal reflection. After Dr. Sloper voices his disapproval of Catherine’s engagement to Morris, Catherine “made a discovery of a very different sort; it had become vivid to her that there was a great excitement in trying to be a good daughter. She had an entirely new feeling, which may be described as a state of expectant suspense about her own actions.” In other words, Catherine discovers that “trying to be a good daughter” involves discerning her own opinion and figuring out how to reconcile that opinion with her loyalty to her father and her own cherished sense of honesty. These stirrings of an independent voice are exhilarating for her.
In the meantime, when Catherine hears that Aunt Penniman has met clandestinely with Morris to try to help their romance along, she discovers her own capacity to feel annoyed: “‘No one but I [should see him],’ said Catherine, who felt as if she were making the most presumptuous speech of her life, and yet at the same time had an instinct that she was right in doing so.” Catherine has her first taste of righteous anger, her eyes are opened to faults within her own family, and she begins to trust her moral instincts, even though it still feels “presumptuous” to do so. Later that same night, “Catherine sat alone by the parlour fire—sat there for more than an hour, lost in her meditations. […] She had an immense respect for her father, and she felt that to displease him would be a misdemeanour analogous to an act of profanity in a great temple: but her purpose had slowly ripened, and she believed that her prayers had purified it of its violence.” She decides to try again to persuade her father to give Morris a chance and to let her see him again. Dr. Sloper hasn’t toppled from his pedestal in Catherine’s eyes, and defying him feels “profane,” yet she nonetheless performs her defiance within the context of a continued sense of filial piety.
When Catherine’s tentative steps toward independence are harshly rejected, her father’s stature is reduced in her eyes, and she begins to come more defiantly into her own. After much thought, Catherine declares to her father: “If I don’t obey you, I ought not to live with you—to enjoy your kindness and protection.” Although he is somewhat impressed, Dr. Sloper is dismayed by this show of independent thought and harshly silences his daughter’s line of reasoning.
Her father’s contempt stings Catherine, but it also steels her. When, during their travels in Europe, Dr. Sloper chooses a remote Alpine pass in which to vent his anger at Catherine’s stubbornness, Catherine bravely stands her ground. James writes: “[T]his hard, melancholy dell, abandoned by the summer light, made her feel her loneliness.” After they speak harshly to one another and her father returns to the carriage ahead of her, “she made her way forward with difficulty, her heart beating with the excitement of having for the first time spoken to him” heatedly. In this scene, Catherine shows she can decidedly hold her own with her father and won’t let his threats intimidate her from staying her determined course. This literal mountaintop experience gives her the strength to continue on her chosen path upon returning to the ordinary environment of Washington Square, New York. Now that Catherine’s resolve has been tested in a remote standoff with no one but herself to count on, she won’t be bullied by her father, or anyone, again. At the same time, she wouldn’t have arrived at this culmination if not for the smaller tests leading up to it.
After the confrontation in Europe, Catherine has equivalent moments of emancipation from Aunt Penniman’s meddling and Morris’s blithe dishonesty. The ultimate picture of independence is Catherine’s eventual status as an “admirable old maid” who makes her own decisions about the use of her time and fortune. However, these achievements are all the more believable because of Catherine’s gradual journey from being a shy young woman unsure of her own mind and powers.
Gaining Independence ThemeTracker
Gaining Independence 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.
She only had an idea that if she should be very good, the situation would in some mysterious manner improve. To be good, she must be patient, respectful, abstain from judging her father too harshly, and from committing any act of open defiance. […] She could not imagine herself imparting any kind of knowledge to her father, there was something superior even in his injustice and absolute in his mistakes. But she could at least be good, and if she were only good enough. Heaven would invent some way of reconciling all things—the dignity of her father’s errors and the sweetness of her own confidence, the strict performance of her filial duties and the enjoyment of Morris Townsend’s affection.
Catherine sat alone by the parlour fire—sat there for more than an hour, lost in her meditations. Her aunt seemed to her aggressive and foolish, and to see it so clearly—to judge Mrs. Penniman so positively—made her feel old and grave. She did not resent the imputation of weakness; it made no impression on her, for she had not the sense of weakness, and she was not hurt at not being appreciated. She had an immense respect for her father, and she felt that to displease him would be a misdemeanour analogous to an act of profanity in a great temple: but her purpose had slowly ripened, and she believed that her prayers had purified it of its violence. The evening advanced, and the lamp burned dim without her noticing it; her eyes were fixed upon her terrible plan.
“[…] The two things are extremely mixed up, and the mixture is extremely odd. It will produce some third element, and that’s what I am waiting to see. I wait with suspense—with positive excitement; and that is a sort of emotion that I didn’t suppose Catherine would ever provide for me. I am really very much obliged to her.”
“She will cling,” said Mrs. Almond; “she will certainly cling.”
“Yes; as I say, she will stick.”
“Cling is prettier. That’s what those very simple natures always do, and nothing could be simpler than Catherine. She doesn’t take many impressions; but when she takes one she keeps it. She is like a copper kettle that receives a dent; you may polish up the kettle, but you can’t efface the mark.”
“We must try and polish up Catherine,” said the Doctor. “I will take her to Europe.”
“I sometimes think that if I do what you dislike so much, I ought not to stay with you.”
“To stay with me?”
“If I live with you, I ought to obey you.”
“If that’s your theory, it’s certainly mine,” said the Doctor, with a dry laugh.
“But if I don’t obey you, I ought not to live with you—to enjoy your kindness and protection.”
This striking argument gave the Doctor a sudden sense of having underestimated his daughter; it seemed even more than worthy of a young woman who had revealed the quality of unaggressive obstinacy. But it displeased him—displeased him deeply, and he signified as much. “That idea is in very bad taste,” he said. “Did you get it from Mr. Townsend?”
“Oh no; it’s my own!” said Catherine eagerly.
“Keep it to yourself, then,” her father answered, more than ever determined she should go to Europe.
Her father’s displeasure had cost the girl, as we know, a great deal of deep-welling sorrow—sorrow of the purest and most generous kind, without a touch of resentment or rancour; but for the first time, after he had dismissed with such contemptuous brevity her apology for being a charge upon him, there was a spark of anger in her grief. She had felt his contempt; it had scorched her; that speech about her bad taste made her ears burn for three days. During this period she was less considerate; she had an idea—a rather vague one, but it was agreeable to her sense of injury—that now she was absolved from penance, and might do what she chose. She chose to write to Morris Townsend to meet her in the Square and take her to walk about the town. If she were going to Europe out of respect to her father, she might at least give herself this satisfaction. She felt in every way at present more free and more resolute; there was a force that urged her. Now at last, completely and unreservedly, her passion possessed her.
After a while the Doctor descried a footpath which, leading through a transverse valley, would bring them out, as he justly supposed, at a much higher point of the ascent. They followed this devious way and finally lost the path; the valley proved very wild and rough, and their walk became rather a scramble. […] Then, abruptly, in a low tone, he asked her an unexpected question—“Have you given him up?”
The question was unexpected, but Catherine was only superficially unprepared. “No, father!” she answered.
He looked at her again, for some moments, without speaking. “Does he write to you?” he asked.
“Yes—about twice a month.”
The Doctor looked up and down the valley, swinging his stick; then he said to her, in the same low tone—“I am very angry.”
She wondered what he meant—whether he wished to frighten her. If he did, the place was well chosen; this hard, melancholy dell, abandoned by the summer light, made her feel her loneliness.
“You were angry last year that I wouldn’t marry immediately, and now you talk about my winning my father over. You told me it would serve him right if he should take me to Europe for nothing. Well, he has taken me for nothing, and you ought to be satisfied. Nothing is changed—nothing but my feeling about father. I don’t mind nearly so much now. I have been as good as I could, but he doesn’t care. Now I don’t care either. I don’t know whether I have grown bad; perhaps I have. But I don’t care for that. I have come home to be married—that’s all I know. That ought to please you, unless you have taken up some new idea; you are so strange. You may do as you please; but you must never speak to me again about pleading with father. I shall never plead with him for anything; that is all over. He has put me off. I am come home to be married.”
“I wouldn’t say such a thing without being sure. I saw it, I felt it, in England, just before he came away. He talked to me one night—the last night; and then it came over me. You can tell when a person feels that way. I wouldn’t accuse him if he hadn’t made me feel that way. I don’t accuse him; I just tell you that that’s how it is. He can’t help it; we can’t govern our affections. Do I govern mine? mightn’t he say that to me? It’s because he is so fond of my mother, whom we lost so long ago. She was beautiful, and very, very brilliant; he is always thinking of her. I am not at all like her; Aunt Penniman has told me that. Of course it isn’t my fault; but neither is it his fault. All I mean is, it’s true; and it’s a stronger reason for his never being reconciled than simply his dislike for you.”
“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.
“Is it you then that have changed him and made him so unnatural?” Catherine cried. “Is it you that have worked on him and taken him from me! He doesn’t belong to you, and I don’t see how you have anything to do with what is between us! Is it you that have made this plot and told him to leave me? How could you be so wicked, so cruel? What have I ever done to you; why can’t you leave me alone? I was afraid you would spoil everything; for you do spoil everything you touch! I was afraid of you all the time we were abroad; I had no rest when I thought that you were always talking to him.” Catherine went on with growing vehemence, pouring out in her bitterness and in the clairvoyance of her passion (which suddenly, jumping all processes, made her judge her aunt finally and without appeal), the uneasiness which had lain for so many months upon her heart.
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.
From her own point of view the great facts of her career were that Morris Townsend had trifled with her affection, and that her father had broken its spring. Nothing could ever alter these facts; they were always there, like her name, her age, her plain face. Nothing could ever undo the wrong or cure the pain that Morris had inflicted on her, and nothing could ever make her feel towards her father as she felt in her younger years. There was something dead in her life, and her duty was to try and fill the void.