Wednesday, 12 March 2008


Brian Lee notes that 'one of the criticisms that had consistently been made of Washington Square is that its title gives a misleading clue to its contents. According to this view the promise of social history, or, at least, a strong local interest, is never fulfilled as it is in, say, The Bostonians. Both F O Matthiessen and Cornelia Pulsifer Kelley thought that James should have compounded his apparent debt to Balzac's Eugenie Grandet by similarly using his heroine's names for the book itself.' But this is quite wrong. The principle of the square wholly governs the novel, not so much in the topographic New York location which is the primary reference of the title as in the geometric sense of four balanced elements that determines the narrative. As Dr Soper says to his sister in chapter 21:

"I don't know that; but she is not going to break down. She is going to drag out
the engagement, in the hope of making me relent."
"And shall you not relent?"
"Shall a geometrical proposition relent? I am not so superficial."
"Doesn't geometry treat of surfaces?" asked Mrs. Almond, who, as we know, was clever, smiling.
"Yes; but it treats of them profoundly. Catherine and her young man are my surfaces; I have taken their measure."

The novel, indeed, is a very thoroughly worked out piece of emotional geometry, and it examines the squareness of its affective situation both from the point-of-view of symmetry (and stability), and from the point-of-view of depth, or rather of depthlessness. When I first read this novel I suppose I assumed the four sides of the square were Dr Soper; Catherine; Morris Townshend and Mrs Penniman. But rereading it I'm struck by the observation that this latter character, Catherine's aunt and Dr Soper's sister, actually has a rather minor function in the whole. Say instead then the four sides of this novel are: emotionally tyrannical Dr Soper; passive-aggressive Catherine; mercenary Morris Townshend and money ... this latter being represented both as ubiquitous and as purer, in a cold way, than all the others put together.

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