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HENRY JAMES' STYLE IN WASHINGTON SQUARE Greg W. Zacharias New York University Washington Square (1880) marks Henry James' move away from the flat, socially representative characters of his early novels. The novel also signals a move toward more individualized characters and suggests James' interest in the responsibility individuals bear for the quality of their communities, societies, and cultures.1 Although the result of the shift toward complex and individualized characterization is rather unsuccessful, Washington Square is an important novel to consider because the tension between social representation and individualization of the central character indicates the changing direction of James' artistic interests. Washington Square thus maps where he has been and signals where he will go. Glauco Cambon touches the transitional nature of Washington Square when he writes that James "is still developing his potential within genre limits of the comedy of manners, though the seeds of a deeper approach are already there."2 Cambon's "deeper approach" has to do with the freedom of the individual and Catherine Sloper's rise to "ethical reality" under the pressure of her particular circumstances.3 In Washington Square James merges two techniques: he "pull[s] the wires" of his characters with the cleverness of the "supremely skillful contriver and arranger" that he saw, admired, and claimed to have "thoroughly mastered" from the satiric stage comedy of Victorien Sardou, Emile Augier, and the younger Alexandre Dumas and which informs his early style;4 and he experiments with representing consciousness, a technique which nearly defines his middle and late novels.5 On one hand, James' comic technique drives the satire of American businessmen as a class, represented by Austin Sloper, who operate successfully in the commercial world but who fail to understand their own families.6 James contrives the comedy of Washington Square by "pulling the wires" of Austin Sloper, a medical doctor and widower whose mercenary approach to the healing art underlines his links to the business community and explains why he lacks any sense of how to rear his daughter. And because Sloper alone cares for his daughter, James forces the stock American businessman (who never would be at home) to practice the most important of all domestic skills.7 At the same time, James works at an exposition of what happens when 208Greg W. Zacharias Sloper's daughter becomes conscious of, understands, and confronts the circumstances created by her father, who dominates the scene. The consequent characterization of Catherine Sloper indicates James' interest in the effects of Sloper's conduct in relation to his daughter and in the ramifications of one individual's conduct on another. In Washington Square James goes beyond the exploration of the dynamics and effects of social forces that informs the earlier novels. He supplements a call for social reform implied by the satire of businessmen like Sloper with the characterization of Catherine Sloper, which suggests the importance of individuals in the amelioration of social problems. James goes to greater lengths to individualize Catherine Sloper than he had with any of his earlier characters, such as Hudson and Mallet of Roderick Hudson (1876), Newman in The American (1877), or the Wentworths, Felix, or the Baroness of The Europeans (1878). He repeats techniques used in the individualization of Catherine Sloper in such later figures as Isabel Archer, Hyacinth Robinson, and Maggie Verver. James signals his interest in Catherine Sloper (and through her in the makeup of individual human beings) through his effort to portray states of consciousness, even though that portrait lacks detail and is uneven. Nevertheless, the consequences of relations between individuals rather than between social cohorts introduce a subject he investigated through the middle novels and carried out fully in the late ones. Even while James individualizes Catherine more than any previous novel character, he could not avoid involving her in the implicit social commentary raised by Doctor Sloper's replacement of family relations with business ones. Thus Catherine's involvement in the satire raises a problem for James: how to individualize a character without sacrificing the didactic component of the fiction, which may be carried more effectively by flatter, more representative characters as vehicles. The progress of James' career up to Washington Square seems to have...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 207-224
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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