Friday, April 20, 2012

Washington Square By Henry James: A Review

I feel so ignorant when I don't love a classic, but this is indeed the case. I first attempted reading this book. I couldn't get into it, so I stopped. Then I really got into learning more about this period, so I decided to try again, but this time on audio. 

First, a note on the narrator. There are several audio versions available, but I listened to Lorna Raver's version. She was excellent and made the book much more enjoyable than simply reading it. Seriously, a good narrator can make or break a book.  Likewise, a worthy narrator can make you finish a book when you would normally have quit.  Case in point...Washington Square

Catherine Sloper catches the eye of Morris Townsend, presumably because he sees the dollar signs of her inheritance. Her flighty, meddling aunt, Mrs. Penniman, helps promotes the relationship. Her father, Dr. Sloper is sure that Townsend is only after Catherine's money. He tells Catherine as much and makes it clear to her that he hates Townsend. Furthermore, Dr. Sloper has never been very loving towards Catherine. He seems to be disappointed and embarrassed by her. Still, Catherine is infatuated by Townsend and wants to be with him. Eventually, Dr. Sloper threatens to cut Catherine out of his will if she marries Townsend. With this news, Townsend moves on. The story jumps ahead almost twenty years. Catherine has avoided marriage, even though she has had suitors.  Dr. Sloper dies and leaves Catherine a very small inheritance because he is still concerned she will be taken advantage of by a manipulative fiance. Catherine's aunt reunites she and Townsend when he returns to town. He attempts to rekindle the relationship. She refuses to hear his argument and hands him his walking papers.

Here are the points I took away from this novel:

  1. Dr. Sloper is a horrible father. What sort of father sets conditions on his love? 
  2. Mrs. Penniman is utterly unlikable. Really, just horrible.  She needs another hobby.
  3. It's never really stated if Townsend really did only pursue Catherine for her money. I wonder??? 
  4. Catherine grows in character as she becomes stronger, but at what cost? She'll die a spinster. 
  5. I still don't understand the significance of the title is.  The characters meet "in secret" in Washington Square occasionally.  But the story isn't a commentary on New York City or this particular area really.

What's interesting is that due to the third person omniscient point of view, we understand very little of Morris Townsend.  I get a clear sense of who Catherine, Dr. Sloper, and Mrs. Penniman are.  I understand their characters and personalities.  Perhaps it is because he is the subject of so much scrutiny and prejudice, but I feel like we never hear his true voice.  This is why I'm unclear as to his true feelings and motives.  I honestly think there was more there than his search for money.

I simply feel that not a lot happened. I truly had to make myself finish it. The writing, of course, was good, and I appreciate that. But the language of over 100 years ago is not that of today, even if it was the "American Renaissance." Structure, style, and language are so different now. I wish I could say I liked it better, but it was just all right. Check one more off my "try to read more classics and not so many many comic memoirs list."

There was a movie made back in the day with my girl Olivia de Havilland  of Gone With the Wind.  I wouldn't mind seeing it.

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