Washington Square (novel)

Washington Square is a short novel by Henry James. Originally published in 1880 as a serial in Cornhill Magazine and Harper's New Monthly Magazine, it is a structurally simple tragicomedy that recounts the conflict between a dull but sweet daughter and her brilliant, unemotional father. The plot of the novel is based upon a true story told to James by his close friend, British actress Fanny Kemble.[1] The book is often compared with Jane Austen's work for the clarity and grace of its prose and its intense focus on family relationships. James was not a great fan of Washington Square. He tried to read it over for inclusion in the New York Edition of his fiction (1907–1909) but found that he could not, so the novel was not included. Readers, though, have sufficiently enjoyed the book to make it one of the more popular of James' works.

Washington Square
1880 first edition cover
AuthorHenry James
IllustratorGeorge Du Maurier
CountryUnited States
PublisherHarper & Brothers
New York City
Publication date
1 December 1880
Media typePrint: hardcover
Pages266 pp


The novel is told from first person in omniscient point of view, and the narrator often offers his comments directly to the reader ("though it is an awkward confession to make about one's heroine, I must add she was something of a glutton", Chapter II)

The novel begins at a distance from the characters, describing the background of the Sloper' family. It then recounts in detail the story of Catherine's romance with Morris Townsend. When Morris jilts her, the focus shifts back to a long view. As James puts it: "Our story has hitherto moved with very short steps, but as it approaches its termination it must take a long stride." The final few chapters are taken once more in short steps, ending with the striking vignette of Catherine's refusal of Morris.

Major themes

The bitterest irony in the story is that Dr. Sloper, a brilliant and successful physician, is exactly right about Morris Townsend, and yet he is cruel to his defenceless and loving daughter. If the doctor had been incorrect in his appraisal of the worthless Townsend, he would be only a stock villain. As it is, the doctor's head functions perfectly but his heart has grown cold after the death of his beautiful and gifted wife.

Catherine gradually grows throughout the story, ultimately gaining the ability to judge her situation accurately. As James puts it: "From her point of view the great facts of her career were that Morris Townsend had trifled with her affection, and that her father had broken its spring. Nothing could ever alter these facts; they were always there, like her name, her age, her plain face. Nothing could ever undo the wrong or cure the pain that Morris had inflicted on her, and nothing could ever make her feel towards her father as she felt in her younger years." Catherine will never be brilliant, but she learns to be clear-sighted.

Literary significance and criticism

"Everybody likes Washington Square, even the denigrators of Henry James", wrote critic Donald Hall,[2] and most other commentators have echoed the sentiment. Although James himself regarded the novel with near contempt, readers have enjoyed its linear narrative technique, its straightforward prose (far removed from the convoluted language of James's later career), and the sharply etched portraits of the four main characters. Even the rusty plot revolving around "the will" has charmed many critics with its old-fashioned simplicity.[3]

Catherine's slow but unmistakable development into independence and wisdom is a notable success for James and has been much appreciated by critics and readers in general.[4]

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted the novel for a very successful play, The Heiress, originally performed on Broadway in 1947 with Wendy Hiller as Catherine and Basil Rathbone as Dr. Sloper, and revived a number of times since.

The play was adapted for film in 1949, and starred Olivia de Havilland as Catherine, Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper, and Montgomery Clift as Morris. William Wyler directed. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four. Both play and movie hewed closely to the novel and cribbed many of the best lines directly from James' dialogue. However, the Goetz version does make a few changes to the story and to the character of Catherine, making her angry enough to refuse to see her father on his deathbed, and clever enough to devise a ruse to revenge herself on Morris.

In 1972 Mexican director Jose Luis Ibañez made a movie version of this novel called Victoria (based on his own adaptation with Jorge Font) and starred Julissa, Enrique Alvarez Félix, Guillermo Murray and Rita Macedo. However this film got moderate reviews because such adaptation takes place in a modern Mexico City, in addition to many other liberties with the original text.[5]

In 1992, a Filipino director, Carlos Siguion-Reyna directed a film adaptation called Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal (Only You) . It starred Filipino actors Maricel Soriano as Adela (Catherine), Richard Gomez as David Javier (Morris Townsend), Eddie Gutierrez as Dr. Sevilla (Dr. Sloper) and Charito Solis as Tia Paula (Aunt Lavinia). The screenplay was written by Raquel Villavicencio. It became a Filipino film classic.[6]

Polish director Agnieszka Holland made Washington Square in 1997, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, and Ben Chaplin, with Maggie Smith as Mrs. Penniman. While this film also takes some liberties with the original text, it is a more faithful adaptation.

The novel was adapted as an opera by Thomas Pasatieri in 1976.[7]

In 2013 playwright John W. Lowell penned Sheridan Square: a modern "gay" adaptation of the novel.[8][9]


  1. 1879 entry in James' notebooks
  2. Washington Square, Signet Classics 1964, afterword by Donald Hall, p. 181
  3. The Novels of Henry James by Edward Wagenknecht, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. 1983, ISBN 0-8044-2959-6, pp. 68–75. Wagenknecht criticizes some aspects of the novel but concedes that it "has certainly attracted more favorable attention" (possibly due, he speculates, to the successful Broadway and film versions). He offers several citations of positive critical views in his footnotes.
  4. A Henry James Encyclopedia by Robert Gale, Greenwood Press 1989, ISBN 0-313-25846-5, pp. 797-8. Gale writes: "James always downgraded this fine, easily read novel, even though in it he brilliantly characterizes the two Slopers." This is typical of critical praise for James' portrayal of the book's central figures. The story's main contexts are based around the narrow upper class society in which the novel is set. Also wealth and respectability are key contexts very relevant to the development and outcome of the novel. The issue of money is especially key as it was said money was needed to "make a mark in society". Catherine has money but fails to do this. Money is also a key issue in relation to Morris and his greed for wealth which becomes apparent.
  5. Historia documental del cine mexicano (Volume 15: 1970–1971) by Emilio García Riera, Universidad de Guadalajara, 1992, pp. 210–211.
  6. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0151033/
  7. Reviews from Theodore Presser
  8. RVA Staff, Weekend Events 1/25/13 – Live music, dancing, and plays RVA Magazine, 25 January 2013
  9. Richard Dodds, State-censored sex drives, Bay Area Reporter, 17 April 2014
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