Henry James’ Washington Square is a novel about the transformation of the protagonist, Catherine Sloper. It is through her relationship with her father, Dr. Austin Sloper, that she evolves from a weak, plain, submissive girl with no personality to a strong, independent woman who becomes confident with herself and her life. One pivotal moment in Catherine’s development occurs towards the end of her father’s life.
It is in this moment Catherine realizes who her father truly is and no longer needs to seek self-validation from him. From the very beginning of the novel, readers are able to see the control Dr. Sloper has over Catherine. Catherine who is “extremely fond of him,” (James 7) is constantly trying to please her father. She relies on his approval for her actions, but Catherine will never receive it because she will never possess the qualities her mother possessed- ” she was without a trace of her mother’s beauty. She was not ugly; she had simply a plain, dull, gentle countenance.” (James 6), which is something her father could not accept. Dr.
Sloper had very high expectations for Catherine, but none were met and therefore he was her harshest critic, who expected her to follow his every wish. This all changes towards the end of the novel. The pivotal moment for Catherine’s transformation occurs when her father is near death. Despite being at the end of his life, Dr. Sloper is still trying to assert control over Catherine, when he asks her to promise him that after he dies, she will not marry Morris Townsend.
Catherine shocked by her father’s request, defies him and responds, “I can’t promise that.” (James 155) This defiance by Catherine leaves her father speechless for a “minute.” Dr. Sloper’s continued mistreatment of Catherine, “opened an old wound and made it ache fresh.” (James 155) Catherine realizes even though she is an adult her father is still suffocating her, “trying to treat her as he had treated her years before” as a child.
In this scene the narrator uses the word “humble” to describe Catherine’s youth, as she was constantly doubting herself and seeking her father’s approval. It is through her relationship with Morris Townsend that Catherine sees her father’s cruel and manipulative ways. Dr. Sloper is used to getting his way and feels betrayed when he thinks Catherine is choosing Morris over him and his only way to control Catherine is financially, so he tells her he is “altering his will.” Catherine realizes that her father may have provided her with the material things she needed, but he never truly loved her. It is in this scene that Catherine has the strength to stand up for herself and stop seeking self-validation from her father. She is tired of being controlled and pushed around by her father.
Catherine’s resistance to her father in this scene marks the end of her father’s control over her saying, “if you pushed far enough you could find it. Her father had pushed very far.” (James 155) Catherine finally has the “dignity” and self-validation to refuse her father’s demands.