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Washington Square (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – November 5, 2010

4.5 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author


Adrian Poole is Professor of English Literature at the University of Cambridge.
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Product Details

  • Series: Oxford World's Classics
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; New edition (November 5, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199559198
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199559190
  • Product Dimensions: 7.6 x 0.5 x 5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #177,040 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
A Thing of Beauty isn't always a joy forever. Henry James's short novel, Washington Square, is a thing of beauty, a nearly perfect 'historical' novel as shapely as a Grecian Urn, which has been the joy of English Department scholars, film makers, and more than a few readers ever since its publication in 1890. But James detested it and attempted to revise it for a later edition, only to conclude that the task was hopeless. To a certain degree, 'beauty' is its subject. The beautiful figures in the novel -- beautiful in any sense, physical or metaphysical -- turn out to be loathsomely selfish, moral failures -- while the least beautiful figure muddles and suffers through to a degree of decency and moral insight. Likewise, the fashionable heart of Manhattan in 1840, the beauty spot called Washington Square, is exposed as emblematic of a crass, greedy, egotistical society of climbers and grabbers.

Dr. Sloper, whose mansion on Washington Square is the setting for most chapters of the novel, is a popular and successful society doctor, made wealthy by his marriage to a New York belle and by his energetic practice. He's a man of intelligence and wit, with a penchant for irony and a well-concealed fund of narcissism. His beautiful wife dies young, leaving him a daughter who is neither beautiful nor intelligent. Catherine, the daughter, is pudgy, dull, and docile. Despite being the heiress of a considerable fortune, she reaches her early twenties without attracting a suitor. Then a handsome, clever, stylish stranger, Morris Townsend, comes courting with suspicious alacrity. The Doctor's widowed sister, a resident in the Washington square mansion, fancies herself a romantic and a matchmaker.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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A study of an excessively shy, but highly intelligent, sensitive and deeply feeling young women who has the misfortune to discovers the truth about the people around her. The inescapable brutality of her discovery has tragic consequence so deep and reverberant as to create in this intimate domestic story, a denouemont as catastrophic in it's emotional intensity as that of any of the great Greek tragedies. The quality of James writing, and his subtle insights into the interior lives of his characters,( not that the two can be separated,) is of as exalted a level as exists in all of literature.
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For anyone interested in beginning to read Henry James, Washington Square might be the book to start with. James is notorious for being difficult to read; however, this story about Catherine Sloper still rings true today, as she clashes with her domineering father over his disapproval of the young man with whom she has fallen in love. Dr. Sloper, who reminds Catherine how plain and dull she is, suspects the handsome Townsend of being a gold digger, interested only in Catherine's rich inheritance. Catherine's chief conflict is her fight for her right to fall in love with a man her father completely mistrusts, while trying to be an obedient daughter, one of the first things that a Victorian girl learned in an age when women had few rights and little sense of their own independence. An interfering aunt complicates Catherine and Morris's life and helps to set the stage for further problems.

Three operas were based on the book, a stage version called The Heiress was produced, and a film version based on the play starred Olivia DeHavilland and Montgomery Clift. A later film version, called Washington Square, starred Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ben Chaplin, and Albert Finnery, put a different spin on James's story.
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