Washington Square: Chapter 1,2

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Summary – Chapters One and Two

Dr Austin Sloper is introduced and it is explained that he is what might be called a ‘scholarly doctor’: ‘It will be seen that I am describing a clever man, and this is really the reason why Doctor Sloper had become a local celebrity.’


At the time this story is set, he is 50 years old and his popularity is at its height. The narrator hastens to add that he is not a charlatan. He married Catherine Harrington for love when he was 27 and she brought him ‘a solid dowry’. Their first child was a boy and he died at the age of three. Two years later they had a daughter (Catherine) and to the Doctor she was ‘an inadequate substitute for his lamented first-born’. A week after Catherine was born, Mrs Sloper ‘suddenly betrayed alarming symptoms’ and before another week elapsed she died.


The Doctor escaped criticisms from others over these deaths, but he blamed himself. His daughter was robust and healthy and the narrator ends this chapter by recording how ‘such as she was’ the Doctor had no fear of losing her. The narrator stops short of explaining this point fully and states ‘this is a truth’ deferred for now.


In Chapter Two, it is described how the Doctor invited his sister, Mrs Lavinia Penniman, to stay with them when Catherine was aged 10. She had been widowed and was to remain there while she found lodgings. She never did find any, if she looked, and stayed and never went away and is still there at the start of this story when Catherine is aged 20.


Dr Sloper saw his wife as ‘a bright exception’ among women and this ‘set a limit to his recognition, at the best, of Catherine’s possibilities and of Mrs Penniman’s ministrations’.


Mrs Penniman is described as a romantic and she had seen herself as taking charge of her niece’s education. The Doctor is shrewd enough to have known that when Catherine is 17 his sister would try and persuade her that a young man with a moustache is in love with her. He also thought Catherine would not believe it, though, as he thought of her as not being romantic.


The narrator refers to the adult Catherine as healthy, well-grown and without a trace of her mother’s beauty: ‘She was not ugly; she had simply a plain, dull, gentle countenance.’ She is an heiress, but has never been described as a belle; she is also good, affectionate, docile, ‘and much addicted to speaking the truth’. The narrator goes on to make ‘an awkward confession’ that she had also been ‘something of a glutton’. She is also referred to as ‘decidedly not clever’, is extremely modest and has no desire to shine. She loves and is afraid of her father. She wants to please him and to do so is her definition of happiness.


By the time she is a young lady at 18 the Doctor realizes she is ‘commonplace’ and he tries not to show his disappointment. She is also described as ‘uncomfortably, painfully shy’ and others do not always understand this: ‘In reality she was the softest creature in the world.’


Analysis – Chapters One and Two

These first two chapters introduce three of the main protagonists, the Doctor, Catherine and Mrs Penniman and in these early pages it is possible to recognize how overlooked Catherine has been as she grew up. Her pleasant nature is emphasized by the narrator, but it is also reiterated that the Doctor has at least resented her and blames himself for the death of her brother and mother.



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