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Washington Square

Washington Square

by Henry James

We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.

Henry James, 1880 (Library of Congress)

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read.

Annette Bening reads from Washington Square...

She was a healthy, well-grown child, without a trace of her mother's beauty. She was not ugly; she had simply a plain, dull, gentle countenance. The most that had ever been said for her was that she had a "nice" face; and, though she was an heiress, no one had ever thought of regarding her as a belle. [.] Catherine was decidedly not clever; she was not quick with her book, nor, indeed, with anything else. [.] She was extremely fond of her father, and very much afraid of him; she thought him the cleverest and handsomest and most celebrated of men.

Reed: That was Annette Bening reading from Washington Square by Henry James. Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature.

Here's your host, poet and former Chair of the NEA, Dana Gioia.

Dana Gioia: The main character of Henry James's poignant 1880 novel, Washington Square, is Catherine Sloper, a simple but goodhearted young woman. She is the only surviving child of a celebrated New York City physician, Doctor Austin Sloper, whose wife died while giving birth to Catherine.

Writer Colm Tóibín.

Colm Tóibín: Catherine Sloper is a great disappointment to her father, because she's dull, and he didn't want a dull daughter. Therefore, the reader feels, I suppose, pity for her that her father is a very cultured man, biting, sarcastic, intelligent.

Gioia: Actress Olivia de Havilland won her second Academy Award for portraying Catherine Sloper in The Heiress-the 1949 film adaptation of Washington Square.

Olivia de Havilland: Her father is a famous surgeon in New York City, a very distinguished man, very witty, very ironic.

Gioia: Chair of the Institute of Museum and Library Services Anne Radice.

Anne Radice: However, even though he had great skill, he could not save his son, who died in early age, and he certainly could not save his wife when she was giving birth to Catherine.

Gioia: Olivia de Havilland.

de Havilland: The doctor is always comparing Catherine with her mother, and he finds this substitute, this progeny, so lacking in all of her mother's virtues.

Cynthia Ozick: The loss of his wife has made him bitter, sarcastic, and cruel.

Gioia: Author Cynthia Ozick.

Cynthia Ozick: He's already seen a brilliant person in his wife, and he wants a replica. And he doesn't believe in possibility, and he doesn't believe in growth.

Gioia: Olivia de Havilland.

de Havilland: She is then one day courted, by a very attractive man who has come to New York after a long absence.

Tóibín: The father thinks no one could possibly want his daughter for anything other than her money.

Gioia: Colm Tóibín.

Tóibín: And his daughter is so foolish that her judgment in these matters would have to be appalling. And of course, she's going to fall in love with someone highly unsuitable—Morris Townsend—who the father believes is an adventurer.

Colin Meloy: He had a bunch of money that he squandered...

Gioia: Musician Colin Meloy.

Meloy: he's living with his sister and sort of living off of her money. And he comes into town, after having traveled, with this idea that he's coming back to the city a reformed man. And he's going to live with his sister for a bit, but then build his own career.

Gioia: Catherine first meets the handsome and charming Morris Townsend at a society party.

Annette Bening reads from Washington Square...

The music had been silent for awhile, but it suddenly began again; and then he asked her, with a deeper, intenser smile, if she would do him the honor of dancing with him. Even to this inquiry she gave no audible assent; she simply let him put his arm round her waist- as she did so, it occurred to her more vividly than it had ever done before that this was a singular place for a gentleman's arm to be- and in a moment he was guiding her round the room in the harmonious rotation of the polka. When they paused, she felt that she was red; and then, for some moments, she stopped looking at him. She fanned herself, and looked at the flowers that were painted on her fan. He asked her if she would begin again, and she hesitated to answer, still looking at the flowers.

"Does it make you dizzy?" he asked in a tone of great kindness.

Then Catherine looked up at him; he was certainly beautiful. "Yes," she said; she hardly knew why, for dancing had never made her dizzy.

Gioia: Cynthia Ozick.

Ozick: Catherine has understood that she's just as drab and dull and humble as her father describes her, and she accepts that. But suddenly, through Morris Townsends's eyes, she becomes a work of art. And that transfiguration is quite real for her. She feels transfigured. Her father doesn't see her as transfigured; he sees her as foolhardy and deluded.

Tóibín: You see Catherine as being vulnerable. Her father is right. She's vulnerable to an adventurer. She's plain, her father believes, she's not very intelligent.

Gioia: Colm Tóibín.

Tóibín: And so somehow when the first person ever breaks that barrier and suggests she's quite attractive, that would mean so much to her. It would turn her head forever. And it would set a sort of tragedy in motion for her life.

Gioia: Olivia de Havilland.

de Havilland: There's another figure in the household, Aunt Lavinia, one of the sisters of Dr. Sloper who has been Catherine's companion since she was a little girl. Now, Aunt Lavinia has a romantic imagination, and she is rather attracted herself by Morris Townsend.

Gioia: Anne Radice.

Radice: Lavinia Penniman. What a character. She is a person who lives vicariously. She's rather taken with the suitor of Catherine, Morris Townsend. And she makes sure she gets to know him probably better than Catherine gets to know him.

Gioia: Cynthia Ozick.

Ozick: The meddling go-between is such an ancient stereotype, and here she is, completely alive and persuasive and convincing on the page. She is so easily bamboozled. First, she believes utterly in Morris. Unlike Dr. Sloper, she takes him for what he presents himself as.

Gioia: Colin Meloy.

Meloy: Morris all along just wants an easy way in, and he's being led on this crazy wild-goose-chase by Lavinia. And Catherine, in her innocence, assumes that they're just working towards some sort of way where she can marry him, but still make her father happy.

Gioia: Anne Radice.

Radice: Mr. Townsend does not bargain on the fact that he is going to come in contact with a very single-minded father, who does not like him.

Gioia: Olivia de Havilland.

de Havilland: There is a contest between these two men, and in the middle of this contest is Catherine, who of course falls deeply in love with Morris. Now, as we know, she also utterly adores her father, and she's always been obedient. So her conflict is very great.

Gioia: Dr. Sloper forbids Catherine to continue her relationship with Morris Townsend, but Catherine's love for Morris is deep and unwavering.

Annette Bening reads from Washington Square...

"I have told you what I think. If you see him, you will be an ungrateful, cruel child; you will have given your old father the greatest pain of his life."

This was more than the poor girl could bear; her tears over-flowed, and she moved toward her grimly consistent parent with a pitiful cry. Her hands were raised in supplication, but he sternly evaded this appeal. Instead of letting her sob out her misery on his shoulder, he simply took her by the arm and directed her course across the threshold, closing the door gently but firmly behind her.

Gioia: Writer Gore Vidal.

Vidal: What was it that made Dr. Sloper hate his daughter? And he hates her. Otherwise why would he do this to her? Here's her chance to get married. What does he care? It's none of his business. He knows it.

Tóibín: So you're dealing with a battle of wills. And the father has to win the first battle, which is to prevent the marriage. The second battle will be that the daughter's will is made of iron.

Gioia: Colm Tóibín.

Tóibín: So you're dealing with quite a complicated relationship. It's not just simply: father is vicious, daughter is good, and he punishes the daughter. James manages to paint the picture of that relationship with immense complexity.

Gioia: Unable to scare off Morris Townsend, Dr. Sloper decides to take his daughter to Europe for an extended trip.

Anne Radice.

Radice: They go abroad for, first for six months, but it's extended for a year. Why? Because the Doctor is trying to break Catherine of Morris. So what does Lavinia do? She invites him to come to the house, to sit in his study, the Doctor's study, to smoke his cigars, to drink his port. And loving every minute of it.

Gioia: Olivia de Havilland.

de Havilland: Many things that Aunt Lavinia did were negative to the relationship. She encouraged it in the wrong way, and she manipulated it, too. They were all manipulative characters, except Catherine.

Gioia: Cynthia Ozick.

Ozick: Washington Square is a novel about imposture, about people who pretend to be what they are not. There's Dr. Sloper. He pretends to be a deeply loving father, but he has contempt for his daughter. There is Aunt Lavinia, who pretends to be a loving aunt and is selfish and dramatizing and superficial. There is Morris Townsend, the suitor to Catherine, who pretends that he wants her for herself and of course wants her money.

Gioia: You're listening to The Big Read, from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today we're discussing Washington Square, by Henry James.

Gioia: Henry James was born in 1842 into a wealthy and prominent family, the second of five children. His father was a noted public intellectual and a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson. James's older brother, William, would later become a famous psychologist and philosopher.

The James family lived abroad through much of Henry's youth. He received most of his education in Europe. After a short stint at Harvard Law School, James decided to pursue a literary career. While still a young man, he sailed once again for Europe, where he remained for most of his life.

Colm Tóibín.

Tóibín: So really by the time he's 30, he's installed in England. And he became a great social success in England. He was invited out to dinner a great deal, and he also worked extremely hard, producing great numbers of short stories, of novels, of essays, and writing great numbers of letters.

Gioia: Washington Square was an early novel for James, but already we can see his psychologically complex and nuanced style beginning to emerge. Many of his novels would eventually become classics of American literature, although during his lifetime, James's fiction remained largely outside mainstream taste.

Tóibín: None of his work ever sold as he wanted it to sell, and some of his books, in fact, sold very badly. But as he got older, all the younger writers, especially in England, viewed him as "the Master." That was the term they used to describe him.

Gioia: (The Master is also the title of Colm Tóibín's acclaimed biographical novel, which depicts a few years in the life of Henry James.) Just before his death, James became a British citizen. He had a stroke and died in Sussex, England, in 1916.

Tóibín: Where his reputation at the time of his death would have been uncertain, really over the years his reputation, I think, has grown hugely.

Gioia: During Dr. Sloper and Catherine's year abroad, Catherine comes to recognize her father's dislike for her. Her only consolation after this devastating discovery is the knowledge that she will soon be reunited with her beloved Morris. When she returns from Europe, she meets Morris to tell him of her estrangement from her father.

Annette Bening reads from Washington Square...

"It is a great thing to be separated like that from your father, when you have worshipped him before. It has made me very unhappy; or it would have made me so if I didn't love you. You can tell when a person speaks to you as if- as if-"

"As if what?"

"As if they despised you!" said Catherine passionately. "He spoke that way the night before we sailed. It wasn't much, but it was enough, and I thought of it on the voyage all the time. Then I made up my mind. I will never ask him for anything again, or expect anything from him. It would not be natural now. We must be very happy together, and we must not seem to depend upon his forgiveness. And Morris, Morris, you must never despise me!"

This was an easy promise to make, and Morris made it with fine effect. But for the moment he undertook nothing more onerous.

Gioia: Olivia de Havilland.

de Havilland: Dr. Sloper has told Catherine earlier that if she marries Morris, the two of them will have her inheritance from her mother. A much larger inheritance from her father will not be coming to her. And indeed, when Morris discovers this, Morris does leave the city and breaks it off.

Gioia: Colin Meloy.

Meloy: Initially I was kind of gunning for Morris a bit, but then as it moves along you realize he's just as much of a cad as the Doctor makes him out to be. So then your favor swings toward the Doctor, thinking, "Okay, well, then the Doctor is a good read of character throughout the whole thing. "

Gioia: Cynthia Ozick.

Ozick: Because Dr. Sloper is right, then we are puzzled. If he's right, then can he really be such a villain? If he's right, then wasn't he really protecting his daughter? I think this is enormously clever of James if he can persuade us to believe together with Sloper, and see that Sloper is right.

Tóibín: He's managing depths of feeling the reader can both guess at and the reader is offered directly.

Gioia: Colm Tóibín.

Tóibín: Catherine is both very deeply emotional and very foolish. Her father is both caring—to some extent at least—and cruel. The dilemma for both of them isn't a simple one. It isn't as though, the young man that she loves, they would be happy forever. Clearly they wouldn't be.

Gioia: Olivia de Havilland.

de Havilland: Here she was, such a good person, so trusting, and then, she discovers that the two men who mean the most to her in all her life, neither of them love her. I cannot imagine in a woman's life a greater tragedy than that, to discover that the persons you love the most have no regard for you.

Annette Bening reads from Washington Square...

It was almost the last outbreak of passion of her life; at least, she never indulged in another that the world knew anything about. But this one was long and terrible; she flung herself on the sofa and gave herself up to her grief. She hardly knew what had happened; ostensibly she had only had a difference with her lover, as other girls had had before, and the thing was not only not a rupture, but she was under no obligation to regard it even as a menace. Nevertheless, she felt a wound, even if he had not dealt it; it seemed to her that a mask had suddenly fallen from his face. He had wished to get away from her; he had been angry and cruel, and said strange things, with strange looks. She was smothered and stunned; she buried her head in the cushions, sobbing and talking to herself. But at last she raised herself, with the fear that either her father or Mrs. Penniman would come in; and then she sat there, staring before her, while the room grew darker. She said to herself that perhaps he would come back to tell her he had not meant what he said; and she listened for his ring at the door, trying to believe that this was probable. A long time passed, but Morris remained absent; the shadows gathered; the evening settled down on the meagre elegance of the light, clear-colored room; the fire went out. When it had grown dark, Catherine went to the window and looked out; she stood there for half an hour, on the mere chance that he would come up the steps. At last she turned away, for she saw her father come in. He had seen her at the window looking out, and he stopped a moment at the bottom of the white steps, and gravely, with an air of exaggerated courtesy, lifted his hat to her. The gesture was so incongruous to the condition she was in, this stately tribute of respect to a poor girl despised and forsaken was so out of place, that the thing gave her a kind of horror, and she hurried away to her room.

Gioia: Colin Meloy.

Meloy: She was so much enamored and so much in love with Morris that it was the love of her life. And it's so sad, because he obviously was such a jerk. And you know that if she did end up marrying him, and she had managed to get her father's money, he would have squandered it.

Gioia: Cynthia Ozick.

Ozick: She's so much like her father. Her father had one transcendent love, his wife who died and left him a widower, and Catherine has had one transcendent love. And she has lived, actually, like Aunt Lavinia and like her father, as a widow her whole life. She's been a widow without ever having been married. So there are these three widowed people living alone in this house. This is one way in which she's expressing how she has become her father's child. This is really and truly a genetic novel.

Gioia: In the final chapters of the novel, we see Catherine later in life. Dr. Sloper has died, and Catherine has refused the few suitors who appeared after Morris abandoned her. She lives a quiet life, alone with Aunt Lavinia in the house on Washington Square.

Olivia de Havilland.

de Havilland: In the novel, we learn that after this tragedy, as the years pass, she becomes quite a figure, and that she goes in for charity work—hospitals and orphanages and all sorts of institutions. So she builds for herself a wonderful life—it's not complete, but it's certainly a good one—where she is surrounded by people that regard her highly.

Gioia: Gore Vidal.

Vidal: See, the maiden lady was rather respected in that culture. And she'd be invited to Thanksgiving and Christmas and help out with the children. And I think she was just being an old virgin lady.

Gioia: Anne Radice.

Radice: Catherine is a product of the age, and I believe she is a heroine of that age. We see a very strong character emerge at the end. So she's someone to be proud of. I wish I knew her.

Gioia: Catherine has not seen or heard from Morris Townsend in many years—that is, until Aunt Lavinia cooks up one final scheme to bring Catherine and Morris together.

Olivia de Havilland.

de Havilland: One night, a hot August evening, when the two ladies are in the parlor in Washington Square, there is a ring at the doorbell. And sure enough Morris Townsend comes back. Catherine, does not want to see him, she does not want to speak to him. But Aunt Lavinia, in her hapless way, tries to arrange a reconciliation between the two.

Annette Bening reads from Washington Square...

Catherine looked up at the clock; it marked a quarter past nine- a very late hour for visitors, especially in the empty condition of the town. Mrs. Penniman at the same moment gave a little start, and then Catherine's eyes turned quickly to her aunt. They met Mrs. Penniman's, and sounded them for a moment sharply. Mrs. Penniman was blushing; her look was a conscious one; it seemed to confess something. Catherine guessed its meaning and rose quickly from her chair.

"Aunt Penniman," she said, in a tone that scared her companion, "have you taken the liberty... ?"

"My dearest Catherine," stammered Mrs. Penniman, "just wait till you see him!"

Catherine had frightened her aunt, but she was also frightened herself; she was on the point of rushing to give orders to the servant who was passing to the door, to admit no one; but the fear of meeting her visitor checked her.

"Mr. Morris Townsend."

This was what she heard, vaguely but recognizably, articulated by the domestic, while she hesitated. She had her back to the door of the parlor, and for some moments she kept it turned, feeling that he had come in. He had not spoken, however, and at last she faced about.

Gioia: Colm Tóibín.

Tóibín: James was terribly interested in not giving the reader what other novelists of the age were giving the reader—a happy ending, a complete ending. James was interested, in finding something truer to life at the end of his books. He wanted something lonelier and stranger and steelier—that novels should be not written for the comfort of the reader, they should somehow challenge the reader also.

Gioia: Cynthia Ozick.

Ozick: Why is it that so many of the great novels are about imposture and lying? Why is that? What draws the great humanist writers to, not the truth, but the opposite of the truth, to dramatize the hatred of truth? Maybe because it exposes us, finally, to the truth, by going through the corridor of the lie.

Gioia: Gore Vidal.

Vidal: James always acted as this kind of man from outer space. He just reported what he saw and what he heard, and he had a wonderful ear—and makes pure gold out of it.

Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

It was written and produced by Dan Stone. Readings from Washington Square were by Annette Bening. Excerpts from Beethoven piano sonatas, performed by Seymour Lipkin from the album The Complete Beethoven Sonatas used with permission of Newport Classic.

And the following music used by permission of Naxos of America:

  • Excerpts from the album Dance Music from Old Vienna, composed by Johann Strauss and Joseph Lanner, performed by the Tanzquartett Wien.
  • Excerpts from the album Brahms: Sonatas for Violin and Piano, composed by Johannes Brahms and excerpts from the album Piano Trios Volume 1 composed by Antonin Dvorak.

Production assistants: Adam Kampe, Pepper Smith and Liz Mehaffey. Special thanks to Emily Thetford-Smith, Lindsay Waldman, Ted Libbey, and to our contributors: Olivia de Havilland, Colin Meloy, Cynthia Ozick, Anne Radice, Colm Tóibín and Gore Vidal.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Dana Gioia.

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