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 with her father. Through this story of grief’s fallout across generations, James argues that loss, when it’s not squarely dealt with, leads to unhealthy idealizing of individuals and grave damage to relationships.
Dr. Sloper idealizes his deceased wife, Catherine Harrington, to the extent that he inflicts lifelong damage on his relationship with his daughter, Catherine Sloper. Dr. Sloper can’t love his daughter for herself; he only sees her in the shadow of her mother: “There would have been a fitness in her being pretty and graceful, intelligent and distinguished; for her mother had been the most charming woman of her little day […] He had moments of irritation at having produced a commonplace child.” This is the overarching tragedy of Catherine’s life, since her father can’t let go of the idea of the child he wishes he’d had in order to accept the one he does have.
Catherine perceives that her father’s opposition to her engagement to Morris Townsend traces back to this irrational, lingering grief and denial. “It’s because he was so fond of my mother,” she tells Morris after returning from Europe. “She was beautiful, and very, very brilliant; he is always thinking of her. I am not at all like her […] Of course it isn’t my fault; but neither is it his fault […] [I]t’s a stronger reason for his never being reconciled than simply his dislike for you.” Dr. Sloper’s idealization of his late wife keeps him stuck in the past, and no matter how much this manifests as hatred of Morris, it really has more to do with his deep disappointment in the way his own life has played out. Dr. Sloper never gets over his grief, remaining so hung up on Catherine’s long-dead romance with Townsend that, twenty years later, he even modifies his will to make Catherine’s inheritance less attractive to possible fortune-hunters. This suggests the degree to which his loss and idealization of his wife have distorted his sense of reality and irreparably damaged his relationship with Catherine.
Catherine, likewise, idealizes her only parent and tries desperately to square her love for her father with her own thwarted desires. Even when Dr. Sloper disapproves of Catherine’s engagement to Morris, she continues to idolize her father: “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…” In other words, even though Catherine believes her father to be in the wrong, he still overwhelms her life to such an extent that she can’t conceive of contradicting him; she hopes that somehow, her faithfulness to him might yet be rewarded so that she can marry Morris without alienating her father.
Though for a long time Catherine’s grief over her father’s opposition had been untouched by “resentment or rancor,” things change when Dr. Sloper scoffs at Catherine’s moral reasoning (that is, that she shouldn’t live under his roof if she can’t obey him). James writes: “For the first time […] there was a spark of anger in her grief.” She begins to feel “that now she was absolved from penance, and might do what she chose […] If she were going to Europe out of respect to her father, she might at least give herself this satisfaction [of writing to Morris].” As an idealized version of her father stops looming so large over her life, Catherine begins to claim greater agency to act as she believes to be right—specifically, by doing what she believes is best for her own happiness.
Catherine’s confrontation with her father while abroad, during which she realizes he will never respect her choices, shatters whatever lingering idealization she had of him. Catherine tells Morris when she gets home to Washington Square, “It is a great thing to be separated like that from your father, when you have worshipped him before. It has made me very unhappy.” Ironically, Morris’s cavalier reaction to Catherine’s sacrifice leads to Catherine’s growing disillusionment with their own relationship. After Catherine’s engagement to Morris falls through, Catherine, unlike her father, succeeds in coming to terms with the loss of her idealized perceptions of people. She matter-of-factly acknowledges that “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.” Unlike Dr. Sloper, Catherine looks squarely at the “something dead” in her life and searches for consolations, poor though they might be. Her father, by contrast, spends his life avoiding the grief and shame of being unable to prevent his wife’s death, and as a result, he places the burden of grief on those he is supposed to love.
Catherine comes to terms with the fallout from falsely idealizing people, in a way that neither her father nor, arguably, Aunt Penniman, who smothers Morris as a surrogate son, does in their own lives. However, the cost is high for Catherine: she never loves her father as she once did, no longer confides in Aunt Penniman, and has no heart for marriage, despite later opportunities. Washington Square celebrates small victories in Catherine’s life, but it’s not a triumphant story; the consequences of her losses are too pervasive for that.
Loss and Idealization ThemeTracker
Loss and Idealization Quotes in Washington Square
For a man whose trade was to keep people alive he had certainly done poorly in his own family; and a bright doctor who within three years loses his wife and his little boy should perhaps be prepared to see either his skill or his affection impugned. Our friend, however, escaped criticism: that is, he escaped all criticism but his own, which was much the most competent and most formidable. He walked under the weight of this very private censure for the rest of his days, and bore forever the scars of a castigation to which the strongest hand he knew had treated him on the night that followed his wife’s death.
Save when he fell in love with Catherine Harrington, he had never been dazzled, indeed, by any feminine characteristics whatever; and though he was to a certain extent what is called a ladies’ doctor, his private opinion of the more complicated sex was not exalted. He regarded its complications as more curious than edifying, and he had an idea of the beauty of reason, which was on the whole meagrely gratified by what he observed in his female patients. His wife had been a reasonable woman, but she was a bright exception; among several things that he was sure of, this was perhaps the principal. Such a conviction, of course, did little either to mitigate or to abbreviate his widowhood; and it set a limit to his recognition, at the best, of Catherine’s possibilities and of Mrs. Penniman’s ministrations.
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.”
[…] [S]he had accustomed herself to the thought that, if Morris should decidedly not be able to get her brother’s money, it would not do for him to marry Catherine without it. […] She had grown first to regard [this idea] with an emotion which she flattered herself was philosophic, and then to have a secret tenderness for it. The fact that she kept her tenderness secret proves, of course, that she was ashamed of it […] In the first place, Morris must get the money, and she would help him to it. In the second, it was plain it would never come to him, and it would be a grievous pity he should marry without it—a young man who might so easily find something better. After her brother had delivered himself, on his return from Europe, of that incisive little address that has been quoted, Morris’s cause seemed so hopeless that Mrs. Penniman fixed her attention exclusively upon the latter branch of her argument. If Morris had been her son, she would certainly have sacrificed Catherine to a superior conception of his future; and to be ready to do so as the case stood was therefore even a finer degree of devotion. Nevertheless, it checked her breath a little to have the sacrificial knife, as it were, suddenly thrust into her hand.
“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.
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.