Washington Square: Essay Questions
1. Discuss the relationship between Dr Sloper and Catherine.
The connection between this father and daughter is strained to say the least and this is largely because of the negatively colored view he has of her, and because of her inability to see that he is correct about Morris Townsend’s lack of desire for her. The father and daughter are held in tension with each other, as she refuses to acknowledge the mistake she has made because she cannot bear to submit once more to her father’s ironic and, at times, cruel perceptions. It is also strongly suggested that she does not measure up to her idealized dead mother, and she believes this underpins what she sees as his disregard for her when they are in Liverpool as they wait to return to the United States.
It is also as though the Doctor’s unsympathetic reading of Catherine becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as she separates herself from him as her attraction to Morris deepens. Her father’s demeaning interpretation of her is seen to at least partially influence her behavior, as when she avoids telling him fully about their separation.
2. Describe Morris Townsend and explain how he relates to the different characters he has contact with.
Morris is glimpsed through the eyes and perspectives of several characters, as well as the narrator, and he is rarely seen in a complimentary light. His attraction to Catherine is, as her father suspects, based largely on the inheritance she would have if her father does not cut her out of his will. This opinion is reinforced when Morris brings about a separation from her after she returns from Europe and he has learned that her father has not relented against him. He is, then, as mercenary as he claims Dr Sloper will accuse him of being, but he is also without means or support (unlike Catherine) in a capitalist society.
Catherine and her aunt, Mrs Penniman, are the two who are most attracted to him and both refuse to regard him critically while he is ‘a-courting’ Catherine. Mrs Penniman even goes as far as to begin to see him as a son and appears to favor him over her niece.
3. Consider how marriage is depicted.
With Catherine as the central figure, her decision to marry for love rather than economic gain is a key aspect of the novel. This decision is, of course, influenced by her already wealthy and independent status that has come from the inheritance she receives from her mother. Wealth, as Morris points out at the end of the novel, also means she is free to choose not only who she might marry but whether she marries or remains single.
Marriage is depicted, therefore, as irrevocably tied to economic constraints, as Morris’s decision to marry Catherine is tied to her possible future wealth. Romance and love are seen to be significant from Catherine’s perspective, and this is because she is rich enough to have this luxury.
4. To what extent are romance and intrigue portrayed negatively?
Because Mrs Penniman is depicted as both the most romantic and foolish of all the characters, romance, and intrigue and mystery are seen to be inseparable from a desire to manipulate and meddle in the lives of others.
She is also seen to lie when she sees fit in order to be excited by the melodrama she associates with romance and this is evident, for example, when she encourages Morris to see Catherine so that he can have his last parting from her. Her opinion of romance appears to be derived from fiction in that she treats Morris and Catherine (ironically) as though they are characters in a play or novel. This incidentally is how Catherine has also viewed Morris, although she has also omitted to see any examples of dishonesty in the role he assumes.
5. Analyze the portrayal of Catherine, the single, independent woman.
It is only towards the end of the novel, as Catherine ages and has settled on being single, that her independence is made obvious. As stated earlier, this independence is achieved through the money she has inherited from her mother, but nevertheless she has chosen to be single and free rather than marry for convention’s sake.
As a young woman, she is depicted as being in thrall to first her father and later Morris and it is only as time passes that she is given a degree of sympathy by the narrator and author. It is left ambiguous, though, as to whether this final Catherine who picks up her fancy-work as Morris leaves is pleased with her independent, single life.