"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.