The Immortal Villain of Washington Square
In Washington Square, Henry James confronts us with an exceptionally hopeless kind of tragedy. The oppressive circumstances of protagonists usually arise from failures of individual or social enlightenment. Such stories are optimistic to the extent that they suggest that progress might eventually lift mankind beyond the scope of the type of situations depicted. In Washington Square, however, truth itself is the oppressor -- a universal truth of human nature which, a century after publication, we are still loath to recognize. Catherine's tragedy is our universal susceptibility to the superficial: the chasm between the qualities that our reflective sensibilities recognize as good and admirable, and those that possess us with passionate longing for another. As Catherine resignedly observes (in connection with her father's frigidity): "we can't govern our affections" (p. 141). Thus, evil can seduce us, and virtue leave us cold.
When this is the driving element in a tragic tale, a reader's search for the enlightened perspective is vain. There is no improving lesson; there will be no progress; and reiterations of the tragic pattern will never cease. The malign force behind the hero's sufferings is intrinsic to human nature.
In most works of fiction, by contrast, truth, or enlightenment, is an ally. In Billy Budd, Billy's goodness exculpates him (although the military code, impervious to natural justice, prevails). The Red Badge of Courage, as a rejection of the glorification of war, implicitly invites the hope that wars may end. In The Awakening, it is social prejudice that chafes at the heroine. In Sister Carrie, although material want is the initial challenge, Carrie (whose trajectory incidentally demonstrates the potency of superficial appeal) ultimately fails to emancipate herself because of her uncritical, imitative adaptation to a culture that is blind to all that is substantial and truly worthwhile. In The House of Mirth, Lily Bart, following a role comparable to Morris Townsend's, has been conditioned since infancy in a way that has left her incapable of unlocking from a track that leads only to deplorable destinations. (At the same time, this genius of sympathetic perception remains insensible to Selden's potentially redeeming love.)
Catherine Sloper's timeless plight is of a more dismal tincture. She is, in her father's words, "absolutely unattractive" (p. 35). She is twenty(1), yet has never before, as the doctor points out to Mrs. Almond, received suitors in the house.
Mrs. Almond's protestations that Catherine is not unappealing are little more than a matter of form:
"Is he in earnest about Catherine, then?" [Dr. Sloper asked.]
"I don't see why you should be incredulous," said Mrs. Almond. "It seems to me that you have never done Catherine justice. You must remember that she has the prospect of thirty thousand a year."