‘Mrs Penniman’s character is to some extent a mere caricature’ in Henry James’ ‘Washington Square’
Henry James uses, Lavinia Penniman predominantly for the comic relief derived from her unrealistic romantic scheme, her extensive hyperbole, and deceitfulness. Mrs Penniman is seen as a caricature, a caricature is a humorous illustration that exaggerates or distorts the features of a person to form a visual likeness. Mrs Penniman can be seen as a caricature through her clothing, gestures, language and her manipulation as seen in many chapters throughout the novel.
Lavinia Penniman is a sad figure, she is widowed and “left without children, without fortune” and lives in Dr Sloper’s household and is in control of Dr Sloper’s daughter, Catherine’s education. Many women in the 19th century who like Mrs Penniman weren’t married, tended to struggle with life; they struggled to get an income so remained poor and weak and really tended not to have a life.
Henry James shows Mrs Penniman to tag along to the Dr’s household, possibly for this reason, she originally joined the household temporarily whilst she searched for “unfurnished lodgings” but she chose to settle ” herself with her brother and never went away”. She is in fact described as the ” fifth wheel”, she is always there, most often when not needed, always meddling with the outcome of events, she should really be a minor character but she continuously interferes. Mrs Penniman really is seen as a caricature when she is being a meddler, as she so often is.
She really interferes with Catherine’s relationship between Morris, she arranges dates, “he is coming a courting” (said to Catherine). In chapter 15 and 16 Mrs Penniman interferes tremendously with Catherine’s relationship with Morris, she organises a “tryst” which is held between her and Morris at an “oyster salon”. This location is unexpected and very secretive, this all increases the drama of the occasion, making it seem as though what they were doing wasn’t allowed and making it all seem rather suspicious, as Mrs Penniman is very unlikely to meet anyone of acquaintance there.
At this secret meeting, Mrs Penniman goes against her brother’s wishes and attempts to encourage a secret wedding between Catherine and Morris, Morris realises the difficulty of this but Mrs Penniman thinking she is in one of her “romantic” novels, comes up with ridiculous solutions that would just add to the drama, such as using the “cemetery” as a location for the wedding. She also makes sure that she is a key figure in it all, as she possibly wants to be the heroine, she does this by inventing roles for herself, and this is done in other occasions as well.
Mrs Penniman’s character does have comic factors that are crucial for her to be a caricature. This can be seen through her costumes, gestures and through the author’s ironic metaphors. Her costumes are flamboyant and in chapter IV she is described as wearing “more buckles and bangles than ever” showing that she often wears outrages outfits. Like her costumes her language and gestures seem to be hyperbolic and unnecessary, although this could be a ploy to create a larger part in the plot that she would otherwise have.
Her continuous use of hyperbolic and melodramatic language makes the character seem to be humorously overdramatic and over the top, this defiantly creates a feeling of her being a caricature. To top this of Henry James uses witty and unusual metaphors that have a hint of irony in them. She chooses these ironic metaphors to make the situation between Morris and Catherine more dramatic than it really is, she reads these ideas in her “light literature”, and would like the relationship between Catherine and Morris to be like them.
This can be seen several time from page 82 to 84, where she uses “banished”, “the guilty couple”, “neutral ground” and “exciting suspicion”. All these seem to be similar to some of Shakespeare’s romantic relationships, such as Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo one of the lovers is “banished”, the couple is guilty, as they are sworn enemies and they often met on neutral ground, this is an exciting play, due to this which is effectively what Mrs Penniman is attempting to do.
To conclude, Mrs Penniman’s character is a caricature, her clothes, language and gestures are all hyperbolic and she always attempts to be at the centre of all occasions. She is a sad figure who attempts to manipulate the authors plot to make it more dramatic and like her light literature, her ideas are full of irony and her character in general does seem to posses some humour that would make her a caricature.