Unloved or Unable to Love?

Washington Square by Henry James, is for me the most absorbing of his novels.

I use that particular adjective because sometimes I find him hard going. I tend to get side tracked by his extraordinary use of punctuation; sometimes as many as eight commas, two semi colons and two pairs of brackets the odd dash or two all in one overlong paragraph. Not by any means intended as, or am I qualified to be, in any sense a critic of so revered a master, but I often loose the thread of the narrative. His ‘Figure in the Carpet’ is perhaps on too grand a scale to be seen without launching myself into a metaphorical space for which purpose regrettably, my satellite fails to send signals.

However, in this novel I am carried along in sympathy for Catherine from the first. Raised by a callous and heartless aunt, her mother having died in childbirth, they are living with her father in Washington Square.

An ugly duckling, lacking in the social charms or graces of her day, held up for the ridicule of guests by being forced into excruciating recitals for which she has no talent, she is desperate to please her adored parent while being innocently unaware of his contempt for her.  Her father, for years accepting the servile almost pathetic adoration of his only child, in fact despises her. As she grows into woman hood, in the belief that no one will ever be in love with his ill-favored and clumsy daughter he refuses to approve an alliance with the one man who pursues her.

Her disillusionment comes on a forced European tour designed to prevent her marriage.

“It is obscene that you live to take up the space that should have been occupied by your  mother” he screams.

There can be few words more cruel with which a father could destroy the love of his child. She returns home to the further betrayal that proves her father at least had reason in suspecting the motives of her lover if not in spitefully sealing her fate by disinheriting her.

Unloved from birth, he has made the mistake of thinking that she is incapable of love. In a masterful denouement, it is Catherine who triumphs, not with a happy ending but showing how great the power of love can be.

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