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Monday, April 13, 2020

Henry James’ ‘Washington Square’–Melodrama Or Literature?

Washington Square is not a great novel, and even James himself said that it was not one of his best; but it has remained popular over 150 years since he wrote it.  it is the story of a wealthy New York doctor of the 1850s and his relationship with his daughter.  Dr. Sloper is talented, careful, and skilled at medicine and has garnered a well-deserved reputation among his equally wealthy and socially approved patients.  He married well to a beautiful heiress who died young and whose only daughter was left in his care.

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Sloper is as self-confident and assured in his upbringing and education of his daughter as he is in his profession, and as precise, logical, and even mathematical in his approach.  His daughter, however, although she loves and respects her father, is ill-attuned to his prescriptions and methods.  She has little of his or her mother’s intelligence, charm, and looks; and has led her life timidly and very much under the shadow of her father and his long-widowed sister.

His daughter, Catherine, falls in love with a bounder, a young man with charm and a social pedigree but without talent, ambition, or money.  He is clearly after Catherine’s fortune and everyone but Catherine can see his obvious designs. The innocent, naïve but stubborn daughter and the intransigent, authoritarian father are at odds.  He plays on her love and respect and obedience to him.  It is a choice she must make – either go off against his wishes, an act of defiance and disrespect for the father she loves dearly; or leave off her romantic involvement with the young man.  She, without a canny or manipulative bone in her body, tries to compromise – to get Morris to come around, to make up to her father, to show his love and not his ulterior motives; and to get her father to see what she sees, a boy with talent, love, and responsibility.

The book never goes much further than this familiar family melodrama.  Catherine, her father, the cad, and the meddlesome Aunt have little complexity or depth.  One is far less interested in the emotional and psychological conundrums of Catherine than in how the story will turn out.  Will she or won’t she marry Morris, give up her inheritance, and take her chances in love?

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Tennessee Williams’ character Alma in Summer and Smoke is also the daughter of an authoritarian, stubborn, and overly-principled father; but her struggle for womanhood, emotional independence, and sex is a complex one.  it is never simply her against her father, but her against her own conflicted sexual desire.  She is sensitive, poetic, and romantic and her longings are, in Williams’ hands, those of most of us, unsure of our unexplained emotions, and overly reliant on our logic.  Like  Laura in The Glass Menagerie and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, Alma is emotionally fragile and otherworldly but strong enough to try to live in a real, threatening, and uncertain world.

Paul Morel, the main character in D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers like Catherine grows up with a strong, dependent, and unhealthy attachment to a parent.  His mother, in a long and unhappy marriage, preys on her sons, using their love for her to compensate for her disappointment with her husband.  Her first two boys want no part of her smothering and neutering of their maleness and independence, but Paul is too weak, too emotionally fragile to resist.  As a result, his relationships with women are distorted, unreal, and unsatisfying.

The story of Paul Morel is part autobiography (Lawrence admitted that his character was an alter-ego), part Freudian analysis (Lawrence and his wife were very influenced by Freud), and part coming of age.  The character of Paul Morel is complex and unpredictable.  The reader wants to know how this emotionally deficient and troubled young man will resolve his problems.

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Isabel, one of the main characters in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is just as stubborn as Catherine; but her story is one of particular moral courage.  The corrupt Duke of Vienna has condemned her brother to death for a minor sexual offence – a show trial in the Duke’s attempts to clean up the city – and Isabel, a novitiate, tries everything to persuade the Duke to spare her brother’s life.  The Duke, dismissing her arguments, has something else in mind.  If she sleeps with him, sacrificing her virginity and her religious vocation, he will spare her brother.  Isabel finds a way to trick the Duke, to save her brother, and to protect her chastity.

The story of Isabel is, unlike that of Catherine, multi-dimensional.  She is stubbornly principled, but smart and canny.  Her philosophical arguments display a disciplined intelligence and a talent for rhetoric.  Her love for her brother show a human compassion and a sense of duty.  Her defiance of the Duke demonstrate her sense of judicial right and wrong.

There is little to Morris, Catherine’s suitor, other than the stereotypical ‘bad boy’ ne’er-do-well, every father’s nightmare and every innocent girl’s desire.  He stands up well to Sloper, giving tit for tat in their arguments, but is as duplicitous and unctuous as any soap opera villain.

Catherine’s Aunt Lavinia, Sloper’s sister is the stereotypical meddlesome old maid who admits she loves meddling and melodrama.  She is inconsistent in her advice and counsel to her niece and to Morris whom she has adopted as the son/lover she never had.  She is the most interesting character in the story because of her eccentricities, but she represents nothing of any importance.

At best, Catherine is like the second Mrs. de Winter in Daphne Du Maurier’s romance, Rebecca – an ingenue, socially timid and naïve.  Every reader suspects the worst of Mrs. Danvers, Favell, Rebecca, and even Maxim himself; but the second Mrs. de Winter (unnamed as the narrator of the story)  has no idea.  The allure of stories like Rebecca and Turkish soap operas is that the reader/viewer knows what is going on, but the heroine does not.  The melodramatic tension (we know but she doesn’t) is at the heart of our empathy and sympathy.  No one cares about the moral, Freudian, or philosophical dilemmas facing Rebecca’s heroine, only how the story will turn out.

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James’ language is unmatched and his catty irony is a match for the best of Graham Greene. While one may criticize Sloper for his indifference if not meanness to his daughter, one cannot help but laugh at his bitchy comments about her lack of charm, intelligence, and beauty.  The language is the best part of the book, for it not only illustrates Sloper’s self-centered arrogance, but it gives the story a uniqueness that ordinary melodramas rarely have.

Family dramas are nothing new in literature.  In fact they are it’s heart and soul.  Every story from King Lear to Mourning Becomes Electra, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is about family dysfunction.  Bad fathers, bad children, deception, greed, resentment, and anger in all of them.  Yet most of the characters have more substance and interest than Catherine or her father.  Goneril and Regan are evil.  Cleopatra is brilliant.  Mrs. Morel is devouring.  Joe Keller, the father in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, commits a heinous, egregious crime – knowingly selling defective fighter plane engines to the military during WWII – destroys his family with his guilt, his refusal to admit it, and his persistent immorality.

James himself was not a fan of Washington Square   He tried to read it over for inclusion in the New York Edition of his fiction (1907–1909) but found that he could not, so the novel was not included.  He never explained why.  Tennessee Williams did not like Summer and Smoke, admitted it, and rewrote it as Eccentricities of a Nightingale which was completed too late for the Broadway debut; but James was quiet.  A look at his later work – complex, often boringly turgid novels like The Wings of a Dove – suggests that Washington Square was really nothing more than a popular melodrama, a vehicle for honing his prose, and a beginning of his exploration of families.

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The book has staying power because it is a melodrama; and as in the best soap operas, one is familiar with the characters and story before the first chapter and read on to confirm what they already know.  The unexpected twists and turns are necessary and important elements of the genre, and the reader wants little more.

Daphne Du Maurier never gets the credit she is due.  In her personal writings she has always resented her relegation to Romance Literature and women’s books, described by critics as melodramatic trifles. Yet, for as much as her prose and her characters draw readers into the story, her tales are indeed ‘soft’ without the complexity and depth of Faulkner, Williams, or Miller.

It does no real disservice to James to associate him with Du Maurier – both Rebecca and Washington Square deserve the popularity they have achieved.  It is only unfair to raise anything James writes – because of the importance of the body of his work – to a literary status it does not deserve.

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