In Washington Square Henry James has painted a bleak picture of unhappy lives. It's a short story that begins low and continues on a downward slope, aIn Washington Square Henry James has painted a bleak picture of unhappy lives. It's a short story that begins low and continues on a downward slope, as the surname of the lead characters suggest.
The story is told by an omniscient narrator who remains unidentified but is made to feel close to the characters through occasional intrusions in the text. In chapter three s/he demonstrates a faint affection for the heroine when applying a criticism: "I feel as if I ought to write it small..." And affection is in short supply here. But I found the narrator infuriating, s/he leaves things out as if to build the story; makes me feel somehow cheated. Imagine if our narrator just said out loud "and Morris was indeed after the money" - an all-knowing narrator would know this! Makes me lose trust in the storytelling, but not in a good Peter Carey unreliable narrator kid of way. Instead I imagine an old man, an uncle perhaps, telling me the story, telling me things he cannot possibly know, like how a young woman feels. The empty spaces in the story contrast unpleasantly with the linear, straightforward manner in which it is told.
The narrator also strikes me as being complicit in the downtrodding of Catherine, who he has only pity for. We hear much of the doctor's opinion of her, none of it good, but where is the narrator's unbiased view? For me, this leaves an overarching feeling of patriarchy and 19th Cent male dominance: in the narrator, in the doctor and in the author.
But what we know of the doctor changes. On the mountain pass in the Alps we see a different side of him: for a moment there's a chink in the aloofness he maintains through irony and sarcasm. We see his frustration and anger, and determination to triumph against his daughter. He tells his daughter he's not a good man. He threatens her. At this point we also witness Catherine's resolve.
With the exception of Mrs. Almond, who we don't hear much of, I found every character in this book unpleasant and infuriating. Combined with an untrustworthy narrator and a story that spirals slowly and inevitably downwards, the experience of the book was not a pleasant one for me. ...more