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 relationship with Morris Townsend before it gets off the ground. Catherine’s trusting nature and loyalty to her father can’t solve the helpless stalemate in which she finds herself after Dr. Sloper threatens to disinherit her if she doesn’t break her engagement with Morris. In the end, Catherine attains a certain freedom, but she must sacrifice marriage and happy family relationships in exchange for this degree of autonomy. Through Catherine’s story, James argues that women’s opportunities in the mid-nineteenth century were extremely limited, and that while some women (especially women of means, like Catherine) could exercise self-determination, this freedom likely came at great personal cost.
Dr. Sloper’s misogynistic views shape Catherine’s upbringing. Catherine’s very birth was a “disappointment” to the doctor, after the death of his promising young son. Furthermore, in his view, no woman has ever measured up to his late wife, Mrs. Catherine Harrington Sloper—apart from her, “he had never been dazzled, indeed, by any feminine characteristics whatever.” Catherine is found wanting in comparison to both her brother and her mother. An exceptional characteristic of the late Mrs. Sloper was that she had been “reasonable.” Dr. Sloper’s exaltation of “reason” “was on the whole meagrely gratified by what he observed in his female patients.” This prejudice—that women aren’t usually capable of higher reasoning—limits his expectations and appreciation of Catherine all her life. His interactions with her are shaded with sarcasm more than affection, accompanied by frequent complaints of her dullness (“decidedly […] my daughter is not brilliant!”). When Catherine is 12, Dr. Sloper charges Aunt Penniman with making Catherine into a “clever woman.” Aunt Penniman asks, “Do you think it is better to be clever than to be good?” The doctor retorts, “You are good for nothing unless you are clever.” The fact that Catherine never proves to be “clever” means that she’s of limited worth in her father’s eyes. Arguably, Catherine carries this stunted sense of self-worth into adulthood, and it hobbles her first serious courtship with Morris Townsend.
Courtship, a process reliant on the practices of traditional femininity, proves to be a minefield for Catherine. Because Catherine is both trusting and endowed with a substantial inheritance, she’s susceptible to unscrupulous pleasure-seekers who can’t support themselves financially. As Dr. Sloper rants to Morris Townsend’s put-upon sister, Mrs. Montgomery, men like Morris “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 […] These others in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred are women.” Because Catherine’s future husband, whomever he turns out to be, will have access to her fortune, she’s never free of the fear of being exploited.
Catherine finds herself caught between Morris’s mixed motives and her father’s disapproval, unable to please them both or to easily satisfy her own conscience: “Her faith in [Morris’s] sincerity was so complete that she was incapable of suspecting that he was playing with her; her trouble just now was of another kind. The poor girl had an admirable sense of honor; and from the moment she had brought herself to the point of violating her father’s wish, it seemed to her that she had no right to enjoy his protection.” If she neither marries Morris nor acquiesces to her father, Catherine reasons, there’s effectively nowhere for her to go. In effect, the combination of Catherine’s sweet nature, her material advantages, and her outsized loyalty put her at great disadvantage in finding a husband who will love her for herself. She has a very limited field in which to act on her own behalf, despite the fact that she has privileges many other women lack.
Only when Catherine gives up on pleasing everyone—and acts according to what she sees as her own interests—does she find a measure of freedom. Even then, though, it comes at a great cost. When Catherine, after a tension-filled year in Europe, steadfastly defies Dr. Sloper’s pressure to reject Morris, she realizes that even her faithful “goodness” won’t bring about a peaceful resolution. “Nothing is changed,” she tells Aunt Penniman, “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.” She will do what she thinks is right by marrying Morris, but her relationship with her father has been irreparably damaged in the process. She’s been finally disillusioned of the notion that her obedience and sense of principle will win her father’s love.
In the years after Morris breaks their engagement, Catherine has other, apparently romantically motivated, offers of marriage, but she turns them all down. James writes that “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 […] about the rigid business of her life.” In the end, in other words, Catherine lives her life as she chooses. Within the constraints of her time and class, that essentially means devoting herself to charity work. While she appears satisfied with her lot, her history with Morris has soured her on the idea of marriage, and her ultimate fate suggests that for women at this time, being free often means surrendering conventional goals such as marriage and motherhood.
While Catherine achieves a kind of emancipation, it’s of a limited nature. The scarring experience with Morris Townsend curtails her romantic horizons in the future; worse, her family relationships are forever strained by the tangling of wills and motives that ensued. In another sense, though, James displays Catherine’s strength and independence by showing that she gives in to neither her father’s autocratic manner nor Morris’s fickleness. Catherine gets her own way in the end, and this is “admirable,” despite the sacrifices it takes to get there.
Women’s Limited Freedoms ThemeTracker
Women’s Limited Freedoms Quotes in Washington Square
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!”
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.
“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.