In his novel Washington Square, Henry James uses a number of rhetorical and literary devices to employ, develop, and fully elaborate on the characters introduced throughout his novel. Each character is introduced after an interaction with the Sloper family, the activities of which are the main focus of the novel.
After devoting two chapters to the establishment of the story background, James begins to introduce characters, usually opening their entrances into the story by giving a physical description or a background of that character. It is only after a character has entered into the story that James begins to develop that character and simultaneously the plot overall. The level at which James characterizes the individuals in the story paves the way for their interactions and leads to the overall growth of the plot.
Each character in the story have their own separate personality traits, a background that gives reason for their current position, and their economic value and how it affects the role they play in the story. Catherine Sloper, the daughter of the revered Doctor Austin Sloper. Throughout the story, it became clear that Catherine was an unexpected disappointment.
Her mother and father were both extremely successful and beautiful and people. She was to inherit a huge fortune and to live among New York’s elite class. However, she was not as appealing as expected physically, and her father has personally described her as rather dull and uninteresting. As a result, Catherine has developed into a friendly, if rather secluded and quiet individual.
However, she has demonstrated she is passionate about certain things, such as clothing and theater. She was also observed to grow quite a bit louder or act quite a bit cleverer. As Dr. Sloper quotes, she is like a light from a lighthouse. She remains dark for awhile, but will eventually turn around and shine some light. Despite her quiet nature, Catherine shows a great deal of care for her suitor, Morris Townsend, and her intentions in moments in the story where she seems the quietest are usually revealed by the narrator on the side as a direct address to the reader.
Dr. Sloper is Catherine’s only other immediate family member, though she seems to share the least with him compared to the other characters in the book. Dr. Sloper can best be described as cool and calculating. He either over-thinks and analyzes concepts and issues that deeply trouble him, or simply takes his first impression and sticks with it. This is especially apparent in his conversation with Mrs. Montgomery where he outright states his first impression is usually right. He actually believes everything he says is right, and remains calm the whole time, even in the face of overwhelming irritation and anger, such as during the conversation with Morris about the proposal.
Ms. Penniman serves a far greater role in her imagination than she does in the novel itself. She acts as the organizer of Catherine and Morris’ first meeting, and tries to help them along the way. James often draws aside certain parts of the story devoted to Penniman’s thoughts, those of which are usually extremely exaggerated and far ahead of the actual story itself. So, primarily, she serves as a comic relief.
Morris is Catherine’s suitor and a mysterious character. While portrayed as friendly and carefree, talks with Dr. Sloper have flared up signs of irritation and impatience within Morris, despite his remaining calm, similarly to Sloper himself. Morris’ proposal to Catherine, while favored by Mrs. Penniman, is heavily sought against by Dr. Sloper. Sloper’s theory is that because Catherine is so unattractive and anti-social, Morris could only be after her fortune. Despite this, Morris has tried to remain frank and true to Catherine throughout the novel, leading to the wonder if he actually means his love or if Dr. Sloper is right.
His interactions with Sloper are tense and difficult; both are men of great intelligence debating over a topic to which Dr. Sloper has the upper hand. Dr. Sloper displays an incredible ability to extract one’s true thoughts and intentions and many of the more exciting moments employed by James revolve around Sloper’s debates with Morris. Each character’s unique personality portrayed by James’ rhetorical strategies is what drives the story, and their intellectual talk, extensive vocabulary, and very fine lifestyles depict the expected social conditions of New York’s upper class at this time.