The Opaque Banshees of Washington Square

2023-01-31 ☼ blog

I started reading Henry James’s Washington Square after Anthony Domestico recommended it as one of his books in which ignorance is the point”. The novel describes how Catherine Sloper, the unassuming daughter of a successful doctor, falls for a dashing suitor named Morris Townsend. Catherine finds herself caught between her affection for this worldly young man and her loyalty to a domineering father who is convinced that Morris is only interested in her inheritance. Coming back to Domestico’s list after finishing the book, I found myself disagreeing with his interpretation of the story as a paean to uncertainty:

Hope allowed Catherine to thrive; the desolation of knowledge leads to her spiritual death. Despite the consequences that may come, it’s far better, James suggests, to live in a fiction — far more beautiful, far nobler — than to live within the harshness of reality. In Washington Square, uncertainty is another word for possibility.

There is minimal beauty or nobility in the artificial romance that the other characters construct around Catherine. If she does suffer a spiritual death”, it is because she has been caught between the conflicting worldviews of the book’s two least sympathetic characters: her aunt Mrs. Penniman, and her father. Mrs. Penniman, a sentimental widow who uses her niece as a vicarious romance avatar,1 convinces Catherine that her relationship with Morris is meaningful and real. In so doing, she makes her brother all the more determined to stomp it out. The harshness of reality” only crushes Catherine because her cruel, self-satisfied father chooses to embody it.

The final expression of Catherine’s conflict with her father reveals a moment of ignorance that I find more interesting. Dr. Sloper remains fixated on Morris Townsend into his dotage, and eventually tries to extract a promise that she will not marry her former suitor after his death, threatening to cut her out of his will if she refuses to comply. James makes it very clear that Catherine has no intention of doing so (the request amazed her” and opened an old wound and made it ache afresh”); nevertheless, she refuses. When her father demands an explanation, she simply repeats: I can’t promise” and I can’t explain”.

James’s control of focalisation is always careful and deliberate. Earlier on in the book, he puts distance between Catherine and the reader by permitting occasional access to Morris’s perspective, making it very clear that Dr. Sloper is quite correct in viewing him as a money-grabbing cad, rather than maintaining ambiguity for the sake of a more powerful reveal later on. His narrator is also very willing to intrude with judgmental comments that show how his understanding of the characters is more perceptive than their own self-awareness.

But at this climactic moment of defiance, he does not explain on Catherine’s behalf. She had been so humble in her youth,” we are told, that she could now afford to have a little pride, and there was something in this request, and in her father’s thinking himself so free to make it, that seemed an injury to her dignity.” Rather than clarifying that something” with his customary psychological acuity, James chooses to keep Catherine’s motivation out-of-focus, inchoate.

Like Washington Square, The Banshees of Inisherin is centred around a character described as dull by everyone around them, a character defined by a reactive nature, a desire for stasis and an abhorrence of conflict — the exact opposite, in fact, of the characteristics we usually look for in a protagonist. Like Washington Square, it depicts the deterioration of a relationship, in a confined setting (with a limited set of characters) that would lend itself to a theatrical adaptation. But where Washington Square builds up to a crucial moment of opacity, Martin McDonagh’s Oscar nominee unfolds from one. When Brendan Gleeson’s Colm decides one day in 1923 that he no longer wants to have anything to do with his old drinking buddy Pádraic (played by Colin Farrell), conflict soon ripples out across the isolated island. The reasons Colm offers — a desire to dedicate his remaining days to art, the inescapable dullness of Pádraic — are not sufficient to justify his decision, or the violence of his subsequent escalation, and we never find out enough about his character to accurately judge how sincere or meaningful these explanations might be. One of the defining attributes of fictional characters is their transparency; Washington Square and The Banshees of Inisherin show the value of carefully positioned opacity.

  1. And is sharply satirised by James throughout the novel.↩︎