Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Washington Square

No, not the place; the book. I finished Henry James' masterpiece at midnight last night, and as proof of its beauty, have found myself mulling over it at sudden times throughout the day.

There is a severely unemotional quality to James' writing that is striking. James neither restrains nor ignores emotion; he simply does not discuss it. In some ways, he writes around it. He describes personality and location and mood in his distinct, precise manner, and after he has built up a scene of words, the emotion is suddenly there--an inevitable result of the specific situation he is describing. To my mind, he is the perfect--the only perfect? though not my favorite--writer.

The book posed two questions as I read it. Why is it called Washington Square? It is less about place than Rebecca or Brideshead Revisited or Wuthering Heights, yet it is named after a specific location in New York City. And what is the broader significance of a narrowly focused character study of a woman who discovers in herself the resources to quietly rebel against the personalities around her? My working answer, slapdash, responds to both questions.

Start with a small, old neighborhood in New York City. Fill one of its homes with a tiny household consisting of a widower, his daughter, and his silly sister. That's a triangle. Add a would-be husband for the daughter, and we have a square. (I know, I know--who gives me the right to transform plot setting into a geometric figure?)

So the story is about this little square of people existing and interacting in a square neighborhood (not all the action takes place in Washington Square, but even when traveling in Europe, Catherine's world really remains no larger than the neighborhood she came from). Now if Morris Townsend had not added a fourth angle to the shape of Catherine's world, she would never have lost her illusions about her father, who in turn forced her to lose her illusions about Morris. Townsend does not only change the world's shape; he changes its meaning.

It's a tragic story because it has a cruel ruler (Dr. Sloper), a false lover (Morris), and an evil villain (Aunt Penniman), who between them manage to suck Catherine's world dry of meaning and replace it with--nothing. They define the only "love" that exists for Catherine, and they all claim love as their motivation. When she discovers each person's love to be false, she has nothing to replace it with. Her "triumph" is merely that she manages to hold on to a shred of dignity to the very end.


Michaela said...

I haven't read Washington Square, only Portrait of a Lady. I agree that James is remarkably restrained in the emotions department for his era. Have you read other of his works? Because dignity was rather a theme in P of a L, as well.

Lee Ann said...

Yes, I've read Portrait of a Lady and liked it even more than Washington Square. I haven't read any of James' other novels, though.