Author: Henry James
First published: 1880
Locale: New York City
Plot: Psychological realism
Time: Mid-nineteenth century
Catherine Sloper, an heiress who remains steadfast to her ideal of loyalty. Irreparably harmed by the harshness of her father and the coldness of a calculating suitor, Catherine reestablishes her life to fill the void of love removed. True to her vision, she neither mopes nor is vindictive; she merely compensates by filling her time with charitable and sociable acts, blending her life into her fashionable but anachronistic Washington Square home. Never one to complain, she does one time cry out against her father's heartlessness, her lover's lack of heart, and her meddling aunt's perverse though romantic indiscretions. She forever after forgives but never really forgets, something of tenderness and devotion having gone out of her, a woman who was, in the beginning, richly endowed with these virtues.
Austin Sloper, her socialite physician father whose unfortunate loss of a beautiful wife and son leaves him with no comfort in his plain, simple-hearted daughter. Brilliant and incisive as he is, Dr. Sloper is unable to ridicule Catherine's love out of existence or to supplant love with surface intellectualism. Although he sees clearly the suitor's contrivance, he can never act unselfishly or with unattached love toward the humble daughter who both dotes on him and fears him. He lives on and by irony, finally falling victim himself to a deeper sarcasm. Although his perspicacity makes him aware of events and their consequences, he never understands their meanings. He dies believing that he has thwarted a lovers' plot to gain his fortune and without knowing he has helped kill that love.
Morris Townsend, the suitor who gives up a small fortune offered with love and devotion for a larger fortune that he cannot manage to earn or contrive. As Catherine thinks, he is a man with charming manners and unrealized intellectual abilities, but he is also a shallow, egoistical, and altogether selfish aging young man who has squandered his own small inheritance, sponged off his poor and widowed sister, and set his cap for a plain heiress whose love he rejects when the larger fortune is withheld by her father. Aging as a caricature of his youthful self, he unsuccessfully offers himself to the heiress as one worth waiting for. Soft-spoken Catherine has forgiven him and feels friendly toward him but never wishes to see again this man whom she accuses only of “having treated me badly.”
Lavinia Penniman, the widowed sister of Dr. Sloper and the unremitting confidant of the mercenary suitor. Mrs. Penniman, whose husband was a clergyman, is a hopeless romantic who has taken upon herself the playing of Catherine's love and small inheritance against the handsome Townsend's expectation of the doctor's wealth. Badly frightened by the miscarriage of her conspiracy and aware of the possibility of losing her parasitic position in the household, she becomes circumspect, cautious against her brother's wrath and her niece's mute accusations. Gay and indestructible after her brother's death, she once again attempts the part of duenna for the middle-aged Catherine and Townsend, with results that the narrowness of her vision can never comprehend.
Marian Almond, Catherine Sloper's sensible and observant aunt. Mrs. Almond, aware of her responsibility in the matter, because her niece met Morris Townsend at a party given in the Almond house, dislikes the match but hates the meddling of both her brother and her sister. She thinks more highly of Catherine and her simple virtues than do the others; she wishes Morris were as sympathetic and kind as the proud but humble sister on whom the selfish man lives. Her own deep sympathies make for ease with Catherine and antagonism toward Lavinia, the weak-minded matchmaker. Even she is not able to win the jilted girl's confidence, though she manages to relieve the pain of Dr. Sloper's satiric inquiries and Lavinia's fatuous comments.
Mrs. Montgomery, Morris Townsend's widowed sister. A call on Mrs. Montgomery confirms Dr. Sloper's belief that Townsend is a fortune hunter.