The Big Read Blog (Archive)


August 20, 2009
Washington, DC

"Washington Square North, nos. 121-125, Manhattan."
Abbott, Berenice -- Photographer. 1935-1938, printed 1935-ca. 1990
from The New York Public Library. Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.

Most people have heard about the friendship between Edith Wharton and Henry James. But it turns out that Cynthia Ozick has also spent a great deal of time keeping company with our resident expat bachelor. From an interview with the NEA, here's Ms. Ozick on "the marvels" of Washington Square.

[T]here's not surprise in this novel, and that's one of the surprises in this novel, that there's no surprise.  That [Morris Townsend] comes on to begin with as somebody who has his eye on a dull but very rich girl, and it ends that way.  And nothing has changed in between the beginning and the end of the book, except the transformation of Catherine who, to begin with, has been transformed from dullness into a sense of her own worth, her own actual beauty, herself, really, as a work of art. . . . And later, she becomes transformed from a humble, obedient girl, into a hard, sarcastic, unkind simulacru and echo of her father.

So, although nothing changes, everything has changed, because if Catherine is the focal point of the novel, and the change takes place in her, then this novel, which is seemingly about no change, is about enormous change, but in one person only.  And that is one of the marvels of [Washington Square]. 

There [is also] the dialogue, which you can reread and reread and study and study, and see that every sentence in a passage is crucial to the next sentence.  Each sentence creates the succeeding sentence, and it's always with extreme wit, extreme insight, and moving the story another notch forward. 


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