Thursday, April 12, 2012

You think too much about money! - getting the sums right in Washington Square

"I am not magnificent," she said mildly, wishing that she had put on another dress.

"You are sumptuous, opulent, expensive," her father rejoined.  "You look as if you had eighty thousand a year."

"Well, so long as I haven't--" said Catherine illogically.  Her conception of her prospective wealth was as yet very indefinite.

We are only in Chapter IV of Washington Square, and Catherine Sloper has not even met Morris Townsend, her suitor, but her father gives us a preview of the central conflict of the novel.  His conception of her wealth, her inherited income of ten thousand dollars a year, is quite clear.  Catherine, much like the modern reader, could use a benchmark.

The problem of the novel, again:  Catherine wants to marry Morris; her father thinks Morris wants her only for her money; her father is mostly right about Morris, but wrong about his own daughter in all sorts of lasting ways.  The monetary details are that Catherine has $10,000 a year of her own (which today would be perhaps $200,000 a year), an enormous investment income, but her father, a self-made doctor will leave her an additional $20,000 a year at his death, or in other words the potential prize is an astounding  $600,000 a year.

Two examples of how pinning down Catherine’s rank in the wealth distribution changes how I read Washington Square.

First, the narrator up above is right.  Catherine really does not know how wealthy she is, or how wealthy her father.  She misinterprets her income.  Many people do, which is why we are all middle class.  Readers collecting evidence for an indictment of her father should add this to the list, since it is his fault.  “[T]he amount of money at her disposal was not greater than the allowance made to many poorer girls” (Ch. III).  The narrator, and the doctor know this, not Catherine.

In a late scene, Catherine and Morris argue about money.  Morris, who seems to have acquired a position as a commodities trader, tells Catherine that he needs to go to New Orleans for business, “to make six thousand dollars” (i.e., $120,000, Ch. XXIX).  Morris has no money; if Morris had money Dr. Sloper would bless his marriage to his daughter.  Catherine demands that Morris forego the trip:

"We have no need of six thousand dollars.  You think too much about money!"

The scene is pivotal, psychologically complex, and each character has hidden motives, so this little piece is hardly the only thing going on, but the size of the sum raises questions.  Is Catherine really this naïve about money?  Or does she have some sense of what she is demanding?  She is right: with her own large income they do not need $120,000 more.  At this point in the novel, she may, unconsciously, actually want to be alienated from her father.

Catherine is the heart of the novel, but my idea of the charming, restless Morris also changes with the size of the pot.  Morris often seems to be not simply after money, but after big money.  Say the proper multiplier is not twenty but two; that he is after, in today’s money, $20,000 per year with a chance of $60,000.  The difference would be between working (but with a nice cushion) and not working (if your tastes are ordinary).  Small change for Morris, though, who, at certain points in the novel seems willing to risk an unearned income of $200,000 (“Leisured for life,” as Henry James, Sr. perhaps called it) for the chance at $600,000.  See the lovers’ conversation in Chapter XX, where Morris constantly circles back to the subject of money – not to Catherine’s money, which is in hand, so to speak, but to her father’s money:

"But don't you think," he went on presently, "that if you were to try to be very clever, and to set rightly about it, you might in the end conjure it away?  Don't you think," he continued further, in a tone of sympathetic speculation, "that a really clever woman, in your place, might bring him round at last?  Don't you think?"

Morris is a more serious gambler than I had realized.  James is vague about the fate of Morris’s own inherited money (“I spent my own; it was because it was my own that I spent it.  And I made no debts; when it was gone I stopped.” Ch. XII).  Now I have a guess where it went, and I understand his decisions differently, which part of the chase really thrills him.

A third example, a minor one:  browsing the book, I am now amused to see the number of times the narrator, or another character, refers to “poor Catherine” or “the poor girl.”  An easy irony, I guess, but I had completely missed it until I really focused on how rich the poor girl is.

4 comments:

  1. I'm about a month behind you on reading Washington Square. I have a LoA edition I bought just for the readalong and then I got way off task and off schedule. But the discussion of money will no doubt help me when I get around to Mr James again.

    I like your comments from earlier this week about the book having essentially a cast of four persons who James constantly groups and regroups to expose character. He worked that technique pretty spectacularly in The Ambassadors, too. And Chekhov would tell you that narrative success is all about properly grouping your elements. "All you really need is a man, a woman, and a reason for them to be unhappy" etc.

    Realizing that James was born into money goes a long way toward explaining why he knew so little about jobs. Are there any actual employed folk in James' stories aside from servants? I think Forster complained about this in Aspects of the Novel.

    Thanks, though, for this exploration of cash. I know that when I read Austen and someone's got ten-thousand pounds a year, I figure from the context that ten-thousand is a lot, but I really have only a vague idea of his economic status. Economic/social status is a huge part of Austen's story arcs so I know I'm missing out. Same with Hank, clearly.

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  2. Another hypothesis about the money, one I ignored, is that James doesn't know what he's talking about. There's a crazy woman employed as a governess in one story, I know that much. And there are some painters and writers.

    Trollope is usually careful to signal in multiple ways where a person falls in the social ranking, so knowing exactly what a specific number means is less important. Washington Square does not really do that, perhaps because of the novel's narrow scope. It does not try to cover all of society, thank goodness - grouping those four people gives James plenty to do.

    Because Chekhov is right, with the caveat "All you really need etc. etc. plus a comical aunt or uncle."

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  3. Die geneigte LeserinApril 14, 2012 at 1:42 PM

    James's "In the Cage," about a telegraph operator, and in The Princess Casamassima, Hyacinth Robinson is a bookbinder who becomes friends with Paul Muniment, who works "at a wholesale chemist's."

    In general, it is very rare that any novel of the nineteenth century deals with the nature of work. Even the so-called socially engaged novels mostly detail the consequences of having a particular kind of work, but they rarely make an effort to tell the reader what weaver or a farm laborer actually does all day long.

    As for Forster, I'm not sure that his novels tell us much more about work than James's do. We know that the Schlegels think that it must be useful to work in a bank -- if you should be so unlucky as to need to generate you own income. And we can see the amusing conflict between people who have inherited money and those who are still making a fortune. But that's not exactly a hard-eyed look at the world of work.

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  4. I had not thought of that - as if Forster is one to speak! As if he has the slightest idea what Henry Wilcox does at work.

    Even the early serious novels about workers - Mary Barton, say - have almost nothing in them about work.

    Only Naturalist and Modernists were willing to be so boring as to describe in any detail what an office schlub or assembly line cog actually does. And I am am not sure it was so common with them.

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