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 than strictly rational. By showing that both Dr. Sloper and Mrs. Penniman are blinded to Catherine’s best interests by their own preconceptions, James argues that neither a “scientific” nor a “romantic” outlook, by itself, gives an adequate account of the world.
Dr. Sloper prides himself on being a man of science and reason, but he is able to see Morris Townsend only through the lens of his own preconceptions. When Morris begins courting Catherine, Dr. Sloper fancies that he can reason with his daughter to bring her around to his view of the man. “What I tell you,” he explains to his sister, Mrs. Almond, “is the result of thirty years of observation; and in order to be able to form that judgment [of Townsend] in a single evening, I have had to spend a lifetime in study […] I will present [Catherine] with a pair of spectacles,” to make her see things his way. Dr. Sloper believes himself capable of making an evidence-based judgment with limited material to go on, and so he thinks that all that’s required to produce agreement in Catherine is for her to view the “evidence” through the same lens. Further, Dr. Sloper refers to Catherine on more than one occasion as “a weak young woman with a large fortune,” and he sees this as the sum of Townsend’s attraction to her. Because of Morris’s lack of “means, of a profession, of visible resources or prospects,” he is categorically unacceptable as a son-in-law, and Catherine’s feelings on the matter, or the possibility of layered motivations on Morris’s part, don’t enter into the Doctor’s calculations.
When Dr. Sloper goes to visit Townsend’s sister, Mrs. Montgomery, he does so not with the attitude of someone seeking more information about a potential son-in-law, but of someone seeking confirmation of his already firm prejudices. He tells Mrs. Montgomery of his instinctual dislike, “I confess I have nothing but my impression to go by […] Of course you are at liberty to contradict it flat.” Yet moments later, when the widow proves hesitant to denigrate her brother’s character, Dr. Sloper declares: “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.” By the end of their interview, he has effectively bullied the meek Mrs. Montgomery into saying that Catherine shouldn’t marry Morris. In the end, Dr. Sloper’s “reason” falls short, because even if he is ultimately correct in his “impressions” about Morris’s motivations, he does not have enough real evidence to persuade Catherine. He ends up sabotaging her happiness and alienating her for life, all because of a dubious application of his would-be “scientific” principles.
Aunt Lavinia Penniman is as satirically “romantic” as her brother is “scientific,” and her worldview proves just as self-defeating as Dr. Sloper’s. Mrs. Penniman brings romantic preconceptions into her appraisal of Catherine’s and Morris’s relationship: “She was romantic, she was sentimental, she had a passion for little secrets and mysteries […] She would have liked to have a lover, and to correspond with him under an assumed name in letters left at a shop.” Since she lacks that opportunity, over-involving herself in Catherine’s romance is the next best thing. Mrs. Penniman’s romantic fantasies place her at the center of her niece’s ill-fated courtship, distorting her view of the relationship from the start. “She had a vision of this [secret marriage] being performed in some subterranean chapel […] and of the guilty couple—she liked to think of poor Catherine and her suitor as the guilty couple—being shuffled away in a fastwhirling vehicle to some obscure lodging in the suburbs, where she would pay them (in a thick veil) clandestine visits.” In defiance of Dr. Sloper, and against Catherine’s wishes, she even arranges secret rendezvous with Morris to pass along pointless messages, in order to gratify her sense of self-importance. While the Slopers are in Europe, Mrs. Penniman goes so far as to “adopt” Morris in Catherine’s absence, and her hovering “motherhood” leads her to defend Morris’s (at least partly) mercenary motivations. “For herself, she felt as if she were Morris’s mother or sister […] and she had an absorbing desire to make him comfortable and happy […] She had never had a child of her own, and Catherine […] had only partly rewarded her zeal.” Previously having rejected any crude monetary considerations, she is now so absorbed in Morris’s perspective that she champions his entitlement to Catherine’s fortune. In sum, Mrs. Penniman will favor whichever version of events allows her to claim a dominant place in a romantic narrative.
Despite having been portrayed as suggestible and naïve, by the end of the novel, Catherine is portrayed as the novel’s only truly clear-sighted character. When she tells Morris about her confrontation with her father in Europe, Catherine explains that Dr. Sloper’s opposition to their relationship is due to deep-seated emotion more than reason: “He can’t help it; we can’t govern our affections […] It’s because he is so fond of my mother, whom we lost so long ago.” And when she perceives her aunt’s meddlesomeness, she quickly distances herself from it. Catherine’s failure to fulfill her father’s or aunt’s expectations suggests that she’s actually less susceptible to the trap of a distorting worldview, and her relative happiness later in life reinforces the idea that both “science” and “romance” are ultimately unsatisfying ways to interpret the world.
Reason, Romanticism, and Blind Spots ThemeTracker
Reason, Romanticism, and Blind Spots 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.
“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!”
Mrs. Penniman’s real hope was that the girl would make a secret marriage, at which she should officiate as brideswoman or duenna. She had a vision of this ceremony being performed in some subterranean chapel—subterranean chapels in New York were not frequent, but Mrs. Penniman’s imagination was not chilled by trifles—and of the guilty couple—she liked to think of poor Catherine and her suitor as the guilty couple—being shuffled away in a fastwhirling vehicle to some obscure lodging in the suburbs, where she would pay them (in a thick veil) clandestine visits, where they would endure a period of romantic privation, and where ultimately, after she should have been their earthly providence, their intercessor, their advocate, and their medium of communication with the world, they should be reconciled to her brother in an artistic tableau, in which she herself should be somehow the central figure. She hesitated as yet to recommend this course to Catherine, but she attempted to draw an attractive picture of it to Morris Townsend.
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.”
“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.