Romanticism And Realism In Henry James's Washington Square

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At the crux of the American Civil War, 19th century New York City entered the Gilded Age. This period was marked by rapid economic growth, a change in fashion, and a shift from Romanticism to Realism in literature. Henry James’s Washington Square depicts a microcosm of the banal struggles of New York aristocracy set in the exclusive Washington Square area. In the 1840s, Washington Square became an ideal location to live for nouveau riche members of society to live because it was secluded from the increasingly commercial environment of Lower Manhattan. This isolated area fostered a new set of fashions and cultural faux pas that contradicted traditional, old money ideology. Dr. Sloper, a wealthy physician, attempts to run his household in a traditional …show more content…
The Sloper household represents a microcosm of society, wherein Dr. Sloper considers himself the patriarch. This classical idea of the family unit has not changed since the ancient Greeks and Dr. Sloper intends to prevent any change thus far in his predominate leadership. While she struggles to escape her father’s control, Catherine ultimately realizes her lack of power in traditional society and in the household. The inherent subtleties in Dr. Sloper’s language and mannerisms highlights his dominance over Catherine, as she says, “I think we shall marry…The Doctor looked at her coldly from head to foot, as if she had been a stranger” (122). Moreover, Catherine feels as if she had, “broken a sacred law,” for loving Morris, since her father is her ruler, not herself (121). The thought of being shameful or betraying her father was so profound that Catherine sacrificed her own happiness to marry Morris. While she feels restricted by her father’s authority, Catherine ultimately obeys her father, even in adulthood, because she is subservient to his control. Therefore, Dr. Sloper’s patriarchal manipulation only further exemplifies society’s compliance to traditional male …show more content…
Traditional society stigmatizes indulgence in clothing as a form of self-expression. Catherine is censored by her father to conform to the “classic grace” paradigm that is expected of her as a woman. Moreover, Dr. Sloper is afraid that these bourgeois ideas will denigrate his family’s name, thus he resists a change. Therefore, Dr. Sloper continues to run his household in a traditional, patriarchal manner, wherein he can control everything as a means of order. Catherine is attracted to her father’s rule, despite their differences, because she seeks safety and security from tradition. A change in fashion implies an assumption of risk; however, James comments on the fact that the aristocracy is afraid of change because they do not want to lose power. While James came from a similar background to the Sloper’s, in fact they share the same home in Washington Square, James also understands Catherine’s position as an outsider. James studied law at the order of his parents, but later decided to become a writer, a profession that disconcerted his family. However, James presents Catherine’s struggle in a misogynist perspective, which also espouses the traditional view of women at the time. Ultimately, Catherine’s inability to take a risk and change her fashions force her to lead an unhappy, complacent

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