Convention and Realism in Washington Square

May 31, 2019 by Essay Writer

Realism, as described by William Dean Howells in the late nineteenth century, replaces the high art and style of the literature of the preceding decades by permitting such characters as Howells’ Silas Lapham to have a distinct place in the pantheon of American literary characters. Fervently, Howells invoked the “truth” of the realist genre, writing, “ŒLet it portray men and women as they are, actuated by the motives and the passions in the measure we all know…let it speak the dialect, the language, that most Americans know – the language of unaffected people everywhere'” (Fictions of the Real, 188). This impassioned phrase, apparently invoking the importance of characters such as Silas Lapham, indicates the emergence of a gritty language, an “unaffected” dialect. Such a marker for realism connotes not the stories of Howell or James, but rather the coarse, common language of the masses as found in the pages of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Howells’ call for realism encompasses such literary giants as Henry James, but does not necessarily describe them. Both Howells and James, though utterly invested in “the motives and passions” of the human race, still rely and stylistic and social conventions in their novels. James, most especially, combines high art and society with a new conception of realism – one that removes the mask from the self-proclaimed moralism of the upper classes and demonstrates their hopes and failures in the very light of truth-telling fiction.While Howells’ realism was “romantic” in that he permitted “respectability to censor his observations and insights” (Trachtenberg, 191) and allowed his characters to fall into the miasma of what he believed to be the true American way – health and happiness (Trachtenberg, 191) – James’ conception of realism verged on the cynical. In Washington Square, James relied on societal conventions to tell a “real” story of lost hope and betrayal which followed Howells’ definition of realism in that it mirrored the experiences common to mankind, yet hearkened back to earlier novels of manners that relied on the upper classes for inspiration and character. James, though forging a new path for the novel, depends on characters such as Dr. Sloper and Morris Townsend – individuals from the higher echelons of society that had no likely connection to the common language of the people that Howells so glorifies in the character of Silas Lapham, originally a lower-class farmer from Vermont. Herein lies James’ paradox in Washington Square. Though his depiction of Catherine Sloper’s years of emotional pain indicates a grasp of realist fiction outlined by Melville – “truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges” (Trachtenberg, 201) – James does not stoop to the level of poverty and despair as crafted by Dreiser and Norris in the name of realism in the late nineteenth century. James’ realist vision of the Sloper family, the incorrigible Penniman and the scoundrel Townsend dwells more within critic Millicent Bell’s definition of “authentic” style and maintains a fascination with the melodrama of the elite. The narrative of Washington Square is rife with conventional instances, conventional in the sense that the moments indicate a distinct action of high society. Trachtenberg writes that a new vision of American emerges in realist novels, James’ works included, that shows “a ragged picture…of lost hopes, hypocrisy, narrowed and constricted lives, grinding frustrations of poverty and isolation” and continues to note that James’ writing is tainted, as is other fiction of the age, by “sorrow, bitterness and cynicism” (Trachtenberg, 201). However, throughout Catherine’s abandoned love, Dr. Sloper’s despicable egoism, Mrs. Penniman’s meddling and melodrama – all in all a “ragged picture” – James depends on scenes of familial life that intimate the style of an earlier era of fiction that depended on the mannerisms and movements of the upper class for substance. This combination of cynicism and convention create James’ realism, which is manifested, as Bell suggests, in the character of Catherine Sloper. However, before deconstructing the character of Catherine, it is important to note the moments of societal convention that heavily influence the narrative flow of Washington Square. Catherine, too, has a presence in many of these scenes though her significance manifests itself in her actions and words by the conclusion of the novel.James relies on certain conventions of society to craft his novel. In the opening chapters of Washington Square, he sets the scene for a typical novel of marriage and love, that of course, falls apart. In the Almond family, all goes as expected for the time – the boys grow up and attend college or are “placed in counting-rooms.” The girls are married and engaged “punctually” and the later event causes Mrs. Almond to throw a party to which Catherine is invited. “Her daughter was to marry a stock-broker,” James writes. “It was thought to be a very good thing” (James, 41). These norms and conventions play a large part in James’ novel due to the fact that Townsend eventually courts Catherine in the manner accustomed, yet, somehow, debauches the entire situation byway of greed and suspicion. Dr. Sloper, on the other hand, demonstrates almost a Puritan understanding of society as he looks somewhat sourly on Catherine’s red gown at his sister’s party and has his own strict theory of living augmented by the narrator early in the novel. “It made him fairly grimace, in private, to think that a child of his should be both ugly and overdressed. For himself, he was fond of the good things of life, and he made a considerable use of them; but he had a dread of vulgarity, and even a theory that it was increasing in the society that surrounded him” (James, 38).Dr. Sloper maintains a typical Yankee perspective of understated wealth and his house on Washington Square, rather than demonstrating opulence, implies good taste and a lack of “vulgarity.” Though Dr. Sloper despises Catherine’s lack of intellect, homely looks and quiet personality, these characteristics are what James glorifies in the woman. Her very simplicity of nature is perhaps a mirror of the tasteful home and rather than indicating Dr. Sloper’s fear of vulgarity, enhances the well-mannered, quiet reserve of a Lady. James, by relying on Dr. Sloper’s feelings of propriety, meshes his characters within their societal norms and shows their “real” feelings as they struggle with the conventional problems of the times. By contrasting Mrs. Penniman’s very reserved existence in the microcosm of Washington Square with the oyster shop in the Bowery (James, 109), James shows how very restrained the lives of his characters remain throughout the novel. For Penniman, a trip to the Bowery to meet Townsend in the very lap of the common man is an adventure and a triumph. James’ gritty realism rears its ugly head in this scene as Penniman’s ludicrous errand becomes all the more absurd as she switches spheres from society’s accepted locale (Washington Square) to society’s rubbish bin (the Bowery). Realism, for James, does not discard the significant markers of rich and poor, educated and uneducated, mannered and ill-mannered – rather, he uses the conventions of society as marked by Dr. Sloper’s strong feelings of propriety, Mrs. Penniman’s understanding of risky behavior, among other moments, to further enhance his vision of realism.Trachtenberg writes of James’ disgust of “variety-house” fiction – the popular novel. In Washington Square, the reader is bombarded by shards of propriety, inklings of societal respectability, that belie the fiction that James so opposes and gives convention importance even in the face of a new conception of realism. Trachtenberg writes, “The artist of the real is the artist of ŒAmerica’, a figure which not surprisingly submerges the competitiveness out of which realism had defined its own zealous mission against the degradations of circus and variety-house fiction” (Trachtenberg, 196). James believes that each artist, in a quest for legitimate fiction, would create his own “subjective value” which stood in opposition to the popular fiction as commodity, driven by the market. His fiction, therefore, is just one in a patchwork of “legitimate” writers – realists who create their own conception of America that does not conform to the commodification of the literary world (Trachtenberg, 195). As argued, James’ conception of the world in his literature adheres to older conventions as it espouses the genre of the “real.” His many gestures towards his vision of American value – Puritan ethic and responsibility as seen in Dr. Sloper’s vision of goodness – reflect a time where commodification has not yet taken over the American scene. Washington Square is meant to take place in the 1830s, before the real brunt of the American Industrial Revolution has affected the culture and business of citizens. As mentioned, Dr. Sloper’s quest for anti-vulgarity is slowly ebbing as the foci of the United States shift towards material products rather than moral predisposition. James’ use of detail in Washington Square indicates his reliance on his own subjectivity and the significance of his nods towards societal convention. When Dr. Sloper visits Mrs. Montgomery, the narrator comments that he fits the part of the perfect New York gentleman and “distinguished guest” (James, 97). The frightened lady clutches her tiny mittened hands together in her lap as the great man begins to speak, both confined within a small, “self-respecting” brick house on Second Avenue. His realism combines the important presence of societal signification with anti-utopian actions and efforts of his characters. Catherine Sloper triumphs by exerting her free will, yet she stays in the house on Washington Square with a depressing mate, Aunt Penniman. Morris Townsend puts forth a valiant effort in the end of the novel to win Catherine back, yet, he too, fails in his quest and slinks away to remain alone. James makes no effort to wrap up his novel with pretty red bow; rather the characters are left, frayed and worn, to continue to live their lives still in the midst of convention, soured and lonely. His realism grasps at the drawing room dramas of old, the “voices of gentility” (Trachtenberg, 182) and the “scenes of leisure, of polite ease amid comfortable surroundings” (Trachtenberg, 183) while embracing Melville’s “truth uncompromisingly told.” Catherine Sloper, to critic Millicent Bell, is a character devoid of style. Her truth “uncompromisingly told” lacks personality and has a style “so mute and motionless” (Bell, 19). This dearth of romance and drama in Catherine, according to Bell, is significant in and of itself. “Out of her dilemma” writes Bell, “a new style is born, a new language of authenticity” (Bell, 19). For James, Catherine’s very simplicity demonstrates something “real” about the character. Lacking style and pomp, Catherine asserts herself at the end of the novel as the stronger, more willful character even though her past demonstrates somewhat of a failure in the realm of emotional attachment. Bell posits that the importance of Catherine Sloper’s character lies in her “naturalness” – a quality that James observed to be distinctly “American.” Moreover, she posits that James’ choice to place the family in a conventional setting in New York was appropriate: “the little square where the tide of upward-mounting wealth appeared to have paused for a moment in the red brick mansions with their white stone steps and delicate fanlights…Here was a context in which he could locate Catherine’s naivete…” (Bell, 21). Using gentility and society to his advantage by describing the house and Dr. Sloper’s utmost grasp of the “civilized,” James places Catherine’s simplicity somewhat at odds with what was expected of her. Though she is gentle and good, she does not quite fit Dr. Sloper’s vision for a clever, beautiful, witty daughter. Rather, Catherine’s gentility and reserve tend to irk her father, even more so after she remains stubbornly steadfast concerning her marriage choice. James wrote to William Dean Howells after the publishing of Washington Square, that he distinctly missed a sense of paraphernalia – “the details of customs and appearances so abundantly present in the Frenchman’s native milieu” (Bell, 23). Catherine’s character too is missing this “paraphernalia,” yet she is placed in the genteel house, among genteel acquaintances, with a genteel upbringing. These customs, therefore, so intricately described by James, do not fall under his own definition of style that he was accustomed to from the European writers. Though he does dwell upon such descriptions as parlor visits with Mrs. Penniman and Townsend’s social maneuvering at one of Mrs. Almond’s parties – moments that could fall under the auspices of “customs and appearances” – James feels that Washington Square lacks the same mannerisms of his European counterparts, culminating, perhaps, in the plain character of Catherine. Nevertheless, James’ argument of paraphernalia does not leave the novel lacking in detail of custom and acquaintance. The very moments that reek of gentility and conventionality in Washington Square, make the stark character of Catherine all the more realistic. The hopelessness and cynicism surrounding her marriage-less fate is a mark of the new American realism as described by Trachtenberg, but the constant details of the home, of parties and meetings, indicate a balancing of sorts by the author. James, though claiming to discard “paraphernalia” in his novel, does exactly the opposite. By relying on the many details of society and lifestyle in Washington Square, Catherine’s inability to deal with social intricacies becomes all the more clear. She cannot maneuver and trick in the way that Townsend wishes her too; rather, when she was ready, she unabashedly threw herself into the arms of her lover and professed undying love and a desire to marry whenever he was ready. Catherine’s simplicity and failure illustrate a tenet of realist writing that is stuck in the “The ideal of quiet and genteel retirement in 1835, was found in Washington Square, where the Doctor built himself a handsome, modern, wide-fronted house” (James, 39). James, rather than resorting to the later bitter, gritty realist tactics of Drieser, stays enmeshed in the conventions of society while experimenting with realist conceptions of character. Though the novel caters to the “good taste of the gentlefolk” (Trachtenberg, 182) through its nod to societal norms and customs, James’ characters, most especially Catherine Sloper, indicate the emergence of a new reality of “an authentic and original being” (Bell, 38) – a being of lost hopes with the ragged edges of “truth uncompromisingly told.”Works CitedMillicent Bell, “Style as Subject Washington Square,” in Sewanee Review (vol. 83, 1985).Henry James, Washington Square (London: Penguin Classics, 1986).Alan Trachtenberg, “Fictions of the Real,” in The Incorporation of America: Culture & Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982).

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