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.


The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the discussion questions in the Reader’s Guide. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided here.

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novel. This statement or thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting reasons should be backed by references to the text.

  1. Austin Sloper is often blunt in his assessment of Catherine. How accurate are his views of his daughter? Is he being protective of his only child, or cruel? Does his opinion of Catherine ever change? If so, when? Theories should be supported with passages from the text.
  2. Choose two characters and write an essay examining the way they communicate. Do they always say everything that is on their minds or are some things left unsaid? How does that affect the relationship? How might the story have turned out differently if the characters had communicated effectively?
  3. Compare and contrast the characters of Mrs. Almond and Aunt Penniman. Why doesn't Mrs. Almond try to convince her brother to change his mind about Morris Townsend? What does Aunt Penniman gain by taking Townsend's side? Which aunt, if either, is more loyal to Catherine and dedicated to her happiness?
  4. Analyze the effects of setting on one particular character. Where is he or she most comfortable? How does this character react when taken out of his or her comfort zone? What does this reveal about the character? Use passages from the text to support your answers.
  5. Write an essay considering whether or not Catherine's life would have been happier if she had married Morris. What kind of wife would she have been? Would Morris have been an attentive husband? Support your essay by citing passages from the text.
  6. Examine the roles of women in the novel. What choices do women seem to have within the context of respectable New York society? Which women have the most freedom? Which seem most content? Use specific examples from the novel to support your points.
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