July 10, 2005

Henry James and The American Girl

Late last night I finished reading Washington Square by Henry James, the third book by that author that I have read (The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller being the other two). At this point, I think I can safely call myself a fan of James. I chose to read Washington Square after the considerable attention devoted to it in Reading Lolita in Tehran, and as I read and enjoyed the book, I decided I needed to write something about it, especially in light of having read Daisy Miller (post here).

My original intention was to highlight the extreme differences between the two books and see what conclusions I could draw from this contrast . . . but as I began to catalogue the differences in characters, settings, themes, and so forth, I soon realized that the difference between the two is purely a superficial one. Ultimately they are about much the same thing. I might almost call them mirror images of each other, because they seem like complete opposites, yet the philosophy of the one reflects the philosophy of the other exactly.

Daisy Miller is the story of a young American ingénue (the title character) and her experiences in Europe, told from the point of view of the worldly Winterbourne, an American who has lived in Europe for many years. Daisy, a native of New York and a very free-spirited sort, is travelling with her mother and younger brother, and the American community in Europe is decidedly disapproving of her impetuousity and ignorance of "acceptable" behavior. Ultimately, her innocence and her stubborness lead to her tragic death from Roman fever.

Washington Square is the story of a young American ingénue and her ill-fated romance with a fortune hunter. Catherine Sloper is a native of New York City (she lives in a house at the title location), residing there with her father and aunt. Her mother died shortly after giving birth to her. Catherine, a plain, shy, and unintelligent girl, is wooed by a handsome, silver-tongued young charmer named Morris Townsend, who has recently returned from squandering his modest fortune on a world tour.

Now very much in the market to wed, he has been encouraged in his attentions towards Catherine by the overly-romantic, meddlesome aunt, but her father, Dr. Austin Sloper, sees through Morris at once. He knows that Morris must be after Catherine's money, for why else would he be interested in the girl? Catherine lacks charm, intelligence and beauty, as her father well knows. But, Catherine has been swept off her feet, and while perceptive judgment of others' characters may not be one of her strengths, compassion and fidelity are. She has committed herself wholly to Morris Townsend, no matter what her father may say or do.

Unswayed by her father's threats to cut her off without a cent should she proceed to marry Morris, Catherine prepares for her wedding . . . but as soon as Morris sees that he has been beaten, and that Dr. Sloper will not be moved, he skips town. This is not done maliciously . . . He regards Catherine merely as a business opportunity which fell through. Catherine herself is left flat, with no one to turn to. Her father has grown even more cold and distant than he already was and her aunt is infatuated with Morris and believes he acted understandably.

As I said before, on the surface, the two novels could hardly be more different. The heroines are polar opposites of each other. Daisy is extroverted, adventurous, and beautiful, but thinks little of the feelings of others. She travels Europe with her mother and younger brother. Her father is alive, but out of the picture. Catherine is shy, quiet, extremely domestic, plain, and places her sense of duty to those she cares about above all other considerations. She lives at home with her father. Her mother is dead. An older brother died as an infant.

Daisy Miller follows Winterbourne around, and the novel's plot chiefly follows his fascination with Daisy and his perspective of her actions as we try to figure her out. His attitude, and the reader's, changes from immediate admiration of her gradually towards annoyance and even apathy. When he discovers at the end of the novel that he has misjudged her character, he is remorseful, but soon seems to have forgotten about her entirely.

The reader, too, is perhaps sorry to learn of the truly tragic nature of her death, but she is a difficult character to respect. She is, after all, a very foolish girl. None of the relationships she cultivates in the story, even her seemingly serious and even compromising involvment with Giovanelli, has any depth or permanence. She had no intention of marrying Giovanelli and would have eventually moved on to someone else. Her character, although we find out more about it over the course of the book, remains completely static.

Washington Square does not follow one particular character, alternating chiefly between Catherine, Aunt Lavinia, and Dr. Sloper. Morris remains as something of an enigma, in roughly the same way Daisy is, until near the end of the story. We are unsure whether his motives are pure, partially pure, or totally self-serving . . . although we suspect. This is the chief direction in which the plot moves as Catherine and Morris get closer to marrying one another.

When Catherine finally learns that she has misjudged his character, the sorrow felt by both her and the reader is of an entirely different nature from the feelings about Daisy. We are sorry for ever having liked or been sympathetic to Morris in any way. Knowing the truth, it is difficult to feel anything for him but contempt. The full sympathy of the reader in this case is for the character who was mistaken rather than the character they were mistaken about.

By the time this final split occurs, of course, there is no longer any doubt in the reader's mind that Catherine Sloper is no Daisy Miller. She has given up, or is prepared to give up, everything she knows (family, home, money) for Morris, and for Morris alone. The great tragedy is that she has "loved not wisely, but too well" and has given her heart to a man that did not deserve it. Unlike Daisy, Catherine is capable of inspiring a great deal of respect and admiration. She begins the book as a timid, weak-willed young girl, who James describes over and over as the antithesis of a typical heroine. By the end, she has become strong, assertive, and much wiser, while retaining her best quality: compassion.

Really, almost the only similarity between Daisy and Catherine, aside from nationality, is that they both suffer because they are innocent. But it is at that depth that the two novels truly connect. They share a number of important themes and ideas.

The most obvious of these is the discrepancy between appearance and reality, and the havoc this creates in the lives of the characters. Daisy Miller appears to be willfully violating the rules of decent social conduct and common sense, when in fact she is too innocent to really know any better. Winterbourne's failure to realize this and come to her rescue lead to her demise. To Catherine Sloper, Morris Townsend appears to be charming, handsome, and sincerely in love with her, although in reality his eye is on her money alone.

Dr. Sloper sees only his daughter's lack of wit and perception, and her stubborness in clinging to Morris, and is disgusted with her and disappointed in her as he has been her whole life. He fails to recognize that his daughter possesses a very strong character, but is emotionally vulnerable and inexperienced. While he believes that he has her best interests at heart, his approach to exposing Morris lacks compassion and sensitivity. He only cares that she, and by extension he, is being made a fool of, and he cannot stand this.

This problem with the characters' perceptions leads to a series of betrayals, both real and imagined. In Daisy Miller, the American circle in Europe believes that Daisy has betrayed the common values they all share, and Winterbourne comes to believe that this is the truth when he misinterprets her actions in the Colosseum. In reality, it is he who betrays her respect, trust, and friendship when he declares that he does not care what she does. This is such a blow to her that stops caring about anything. Additionally, Giovanelli plays at being her suitor and harboring affections for her, but he does not care enough to act with her best interests at heart, and so she contracts Roman fever and dies.

In Washington Square, Dr. Sloper believes that Catherine has betrayed the relationship between father and daughter by stubbornly and deliberately opposing his will. It does not help matters that he happens to be right. He is so put out by her actions that he is blinded by them, and cannot see that her relationship with Morris has ended. He dies still believing that she means to defy him, and so disinherits her almost entirely (only leaving her the house in Washington Square) in consequence. However, Dr. Sloper is actually the betrayer. He fails her as a father when he presents her with cold, logical facts and ultimatums rather than love and understanding. In the end, he cares little for Catherine herself, or her feelings. The only things that matter to him are that he is right, and that he should not be made to look a fool.

Morris' betrayal is obvious, though no less heartbreaking. Aunt Lavinia betrays Catherine by playing the part of intimate confidante to her and fostering the relationship at every step of the way, only to retreat to Morris' side at the crucial moment of his callous act of mercenary cowardice, leaving Catherine completely stranded and alone.

As I mentioned earlier, though, at the heart of both stories is the innocence of their young American heroines. Both Daisy and Catherine possess a certain helpless innocence which leads others to either take advantage of them or condemn them wrongfully. Daisy requires the guidance of a firm hand from someone who knows better than she. Catherine needs love and acceptance, someone who appreciates her and will take care of her. Neither of them have their needs fulfilled by their families. Daisy's mother is malleable and oblivious. Catherine's father is harsh and critical.

Both girls come in contact with strong, worldly, male characters who are in a position to provide them with what they need, and seem to be willing to do so, but remove their support at the crucial moment. The effects are shattering. In the end, Daisy Miller and Washington Square are potent and moving object lessons about the tragedy of mishandling innocence. I recommend both as excellent reads (although I enjoyed the latter somewhat more). I also recommend the recent film adaptation of Washington Square, which features some great performances and remains very faithful to the original.

Posted by Jared at July 10, 2005 11:59 PM | TrackBack