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The book starts with an introduction of a New York physician Dr. Sloper and his only daughter Catherine. While the doctor gained respectable position among the patients, he loses his wife suddenly after the birth of Catherine, who grows up to be a not particularly clever nor beautiful girl. Catherine, painfully shy, becomes a dutiful, but perhaps dull, daughter, the kind of a girl whose awkward behaviors her father approves always with a little detached attitude.
Then, comes a good-looking man Morris Townsend, who has no money but gives a word of "gentleman." But what does that mean when Doctor suspects this is just another fortune hunter, who is seeking for the money Catherine is to inherit after his death? Still, Doctor is half amused, even entertained, by this unexpected visitor who now seems to have gained the love of his daughter. But he didn't expect that Catherine would show surprising obstinate attitude in spite of his threat of disinheriting her.
The book is written, as a whole, with a very tragic note, but as you read on, you will find that, just like Jane Austen's narrator, "Washington Square" has an amusing aspect of comedy at first. The meddling widow Mrs. Penniman, whose wild imagination is one of her weakness, is a good example. She runs around between Morris and Catherine, only to annoy both of them. Henry James's touch when he treats these characters, however, sounds more incisive and even colder than Jane Austen's, if not totally cruel -- and the cruelty is gradually obvious as the plot unfolds.
Our main concern is about Catherine. The story is in itself trite and insignificant (James heard the original episode which the book is based on, in England from actress Fanny Kemble, and the brief note remains), but it is the growth (or change) of the apparently insipid heroine, and the interations between her and other characters (or between those other characters) that always impress us greatly. James's pen ruthlessly cuts into the hearts of those characters, and the intense, skillfully-constructed dialogue which show what is going on in the characters would instantly grip the readers' mind.
Some readers might champion more condensed prose of "The Golden Bowl", deeming "Washington Square" as too lightweight. In a sense, it is, I admit; the novel is not long, and the syntax is very easy to understand (for James, I mean). Still, the book is never dull, always fast-paced (for James, again), and the touching fate of the heroine Catherine is not a thing to be missed.
The novel is turned into films and they are also great, I must add. William Wyler's version is a masterpiece, with Olivia de Havilland/Montgomery Clift/Ralph Richardson trio, but more recent production made in 1997 is also good.