National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
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.

  1. What does the reader learn about Austin Sloper in the first chapter of the novel? Based on these first four pages, is he a sympathetic character? Why or why not?
  2. Although Austin Sloper has become a respected physician, his wife was wealthy when they married. Why does he believe his situation differs from the relationship of Morris and Catherine?
  3. Dr. Sloper is disappointed to learn that his wife has given birth to a girl. Might he have been more accepting of a plain, dutiful son than of Catherine? Support your answer with passages from the text.
  4. How important is place in Washington Square? Would the story be different if Henry James had chosen to set the story in another city
    or country?
  5. Is receiving her father's money important to Catherine? Do her feelings about money change during the course of the novel, or remain the same?
  6. Discuss Dr. Sloper's reasons for disliking Morris Townsend. Which are based on fact, and which are simply suspicions? What, if anything, does he like about the young man?
  7. What traits does Catherine find appealing in Morris? Are these the same traits her father admires?
  8. Dr. Sloper says, “The day Lavinia gets into your boat it capsizes.” Does Lavinia Penniman's involvement in the romance between Morris and Catherine help or hurt the couple?
  9. How does the trip to Europe change Catherine's relationship with her father? Why does Catherine remain obedient even after she realizes what her father thinks of her?
  10. Pretty, graceful, and vivacious, Marian Almond is the type of daughter Dr. Sloper wishes for. Yet Mrs. Almond says, “Catherine ... has a style of her own—which is more than my poor Marian has, who has no style at all.” What defines Catherine's style? Does this help or hinder her socially?
  11. What impression does Catherine's quiet resignation make on her father? Is he ever pleasantly surprised by her actions or behavior? If so, which actions or behaviors does he admire?
  12. Compare and contrast the personality traits of Catherine and Dr. Sloper. In what ways are they alike? How do they differ?
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