Book Look - Washington Square, Henry James

This is a surprisingly ambiguous story with a deceptively simple plot. Set in 1900s New York, the story tells the tale of Catherine Sloper, the rather plain, rather dull daughter of a wealthy, domineering father who becomes the target of a charming gold-digger of a suitor. Will she marry him over the objections of her father? See how simple that is? But this is Henry James, after all, so the plot extends - like the proverbial iceberg - several layers below the surface.

Catherine isn't a terribly sympathetic heroine - her dullness, her lack of intelligence, and her refusal to stick up for herself will almost certainly grate with self-actualized women of the 20th century. However, she's much more sympathetic than the uniformly unpleasant cast of characters with whom she interacts in this tale, all of whom see her as little more than a tool to be manipulated for their own purposes. Her aunt uses her as the means by which to fulfill her own melodramatic fantasies of secret trysts and the tragedy of doomed love. Her lover sees her as the path to ready fortune and a life of indolence and ease. Even her own father demonstrates heartbreakingly few signs of genuine affection, viewing his daughter alternatively as an interesting scientific experiment ("how will she react if I apply *this* stressor?") and as a ready affirmation of his own cleverness. The fundamental principle of sarcasm is making the wielder feel superior by belittling another, and in this tale Dr. Sloper wields sarcasm with the same brutal precision he brings to his surgeries.

This is no pat morality tale, however, in which the wicked are punished and virtue is rewarded. Nor is it a thematically simplistic novel, characterized by a resolution in which the main characters change or grow in wisdom. The world isn't as simple as that, and James does us the favor of positing that we know this as well as he does - and that, therefore, we can cope with an ending that is both morally and thematically ambiguous. The novel raises many provoking questions, some of which include: to what extent is a parent justified in preventing their children from making their own mistakes? At what point does principled defiance become merely obstinacy ... or, worse, cruelty? To what extent do we (knowingly and unknowingly) meddle in the affairs of others to achieve our own ends? Can harm and humiliation caused by the betrayal of others be mitigated by a steadfast refusal never to betray oneself? And is this steadfast determination never to betray one's own principles an acceptable substitute for living a life devoid of happiness?

In other words, despite the relative simplicity of plot, this definitely isn't the kind of book you take with you to the beach. However, the novel's moral complexity makes it a worthy read and probably great fodder for book club discussions.

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