Freedom and Betrayal: Catherine’s Evolution in ‘Washington Square’

January 9, 2019 by Essay Writer

Throughout Washington Square, the revelatory effects of love catalyze the heroine’s transformation against the wishes of a treacherously oppressive father. The juxtaposing development of the Doctor’s increasing inadequacy with that of Catherine’s newfound autonomy represents a misconstrued sense of disloyalty. Henry James illustrates this concept of betrayal through the disillusionment of a patriarch’s ultimate authority by the growing independence of his once docile daughter. This conflict materializes as a result of diminishing power.

Austin Sloper rejects any instance that lies beyond his control on the basis that it is mere betrayal. Within uncontrollable situations, liability is projected anywhere but upon his own intelligence or power, a method of deflecting blame and securing authority. Although Sloper “escaped all criticism but his own” upon failure to impede the death of his beloved wife and son, the deaths were still attributed to causes outside of his personal medical ability (James 5). Sloper’s deflection of responsibility, whether purposeful or subconscious, is revealed within the diction regarding the deaths of his most precious family members. His wife “betrayed alarming symptoms” in her death, whereas his son died “in spite of” his endeavors, eliciting sympathy or even pity rather than blame (James 5). To take responsibility in these circumstances would encompass accepting his own limitations, which would destabilize the foundation of his personality as well as his pride. By believing that he is intentionally subjected to such instances rather than culpable for them, Sloper is able to maintain control and exert authority throughout every facet of his life- including and most notably, his daughter.

Catherine’s claim to independence perpetuates Sloper’s diminishing patriarchal authority, resulting in a momentous shift in a long established power dynamic. The Doctor, who failed to expect anything but quiet submissiveness and unfaltering loyalty from his daughter, sees the metamorphosis of the unassuming heroine as betrayal. As Catherine begins grasping her autonomy, the strength of her independence is drawn from the oppressive power of her father. As this power shifts throughout the novel, Catherine no longer remains the object of her father’s will, and her betrayal is felt by the sudden rejection of his intelligence and pride. The moment in which the Doctor felt “a sudden sense of having underestimated his daughter” had “displeased him”, revealing the rancid spite that arose from losing absolute jurisdiction of his daughter (James 107). Catherine, who had “changed very much”, alters the rhetoric of patriarchal power by displaying strength and freewill when faced with her father’s ultimatum (James 121). The manipulative motives behind this act aim to secure Catherine’s subordination even after her father’s death. However, armed with her new sense of independence, Catherine is able to acknowledge that “she could now afford to have a little pride” and that this request came as an “injury to her dignity” (James 160). Not only is Sloper bothered by her newly invigorated spirit on the basis of his inherent and spiteful misogyny, but it is the attribution of her change in character to her lover, Morris, that elevates the situation from disloyalty to complete betrayal. It is by experiencing love for the first time that Catherine is enabled to access emotions and realizations otherwise unbeknown to her. Therefore, Catherine’s perceived disloyalty to her father can be directly attributed to her lover. By acknowledging the catalyst of her change, Sloper has a target for his malice and hostility- Morris.

In order to regain lost power resulting from this betrayal, Sloper desires vengeance. The Doctor’s pride is so great, that any question or violation of his authority is worthy of either retribution, whether subtle or absolute. His contempt for Morris is unmistakable, and although it was present since the lover’s introduction in the novel, the vehemence of his spite became overwhelming as Catherine’s behavior altered more extremely- a testament to Morris’ moral and emotional infiltration. Sloper’s perverse desire would not falter even in death, and could only be quenched by Catherine’s ultimatum that she would not marry the disdained suitor. This becomes blatant once the marriage is originally called off and “the Doctor had his revenge after all” (James 153). However, the Doctor’s vengeful spirit is notable in a more subtle fashion as well. As he had felt betrayed and spited by the deaths of his wife and son, Sloper felt a sense of contempt for his “inadequate substitute” of a child- raising his daughter by means of duty or obligation rather than love (James 5). Throughout her life, the Doctor incessantly objectifies, berates, and underestimates his daughter, presumably a result of the loss of his wife. Catherine explains this when coming to Morris with the realization that her father has a genuine dislike for her, stating, “It’s because he is so fond of my mother… She was beautiful and very, very brilliant; he is always thinking of her. I am not at all like her” (James 125). Catherine states this with acceptance rather than accusation or scorn, emphasizing the tragically toxic dynamic between the father and daughter, yet simultaneously evoking the sense that Catherine has unequivocally become a free and separate entity.

Throughout Washington Square, the development of a young woman’s independence is catalyzed by her discovery of love. This newly exhibited strength occurs in discordance with her father’s overwhelming sense of patriarchal authority, which begins to deteriorate following Morris’ involvement. This precipice causes Catherine to question the authority she has fallen subject to for the first time in her life, furthering the growing impotency of her father’s power. As the Doctor begins to feel the ramifications of a newly obstinate daughter, he misconceives her liberty of action and thought as disloyalty. This betrayal to his pride and power causes the Doctor to exert vengeance upon the subject in which he has lost control to, using his money, love, and life as tools of barter in order to manipulate his repossession of authority. Despite the unbending will of her father and the inconstancy of her scorned lover, Catherine is able to effectively grasp the power once used to subdue her in order to live a life of independence and strength.

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