I picked
Washington Square1 from a low shelf in my parents’ living room, having courted the idea for a while, as the book looked pretty. I was nine, and perfectly charmed by the flowered pattern of the binding paper, the burgundy leathered spine embossed with golden cursive. Although I truly appreciated illustrated covers—more informative than cryptic titles or meaningless authors’ names—hand-bound books had something special about them. Their careful wrapping made them precious.
    I recall handling the romantically attired thing with curiosity—unaware of the resonance between outfit and contents, unable to appreciate how nicely the old-fashioned paper matched the story. The book looked like an antique box for love letters, dried violets, hair locks and faded snapshots. Delightful.
I devoured it. The protagonist of the story was named like my grandmother (after my grandmother, I assumed), this last a paramount presence in my life. I was starting to juggle with identity—figuring the first drafts of such composite creation—and my grandma’s story provided many of the building blocks. Names are important, are they? Especially early on, when the span of our knowledge is limited.
Not only the heroine of the book was named after Grandma, the analogies went further. Both of them missed a mom, lost a young brother, thus remaining the only child of an affluent and authoritative dad. They also shared physical affinities and traits of personality—such as meekness, dullness, passiveness—I already (though roughly) was able to define. There the similarity stopped as Grandmother, unlike her namesake, happily married.
    Thus the book seemed appropriate to my needs. I absorbed it as eagerly as I would have slurped an ice cream cone, and I fell in love. I was overwhelmed by a complexity of feelings—gloomy, sad, strangely nostalgic, throbbing and intense. This emotional richness remained my strongest memory of the book. And I never forgot its physical shape—an antique box, I said, holding concentrated sentiment, pure passion.
I also sharply recalled how the reading was a turning point in my consciousness, as it brought up a truth I had never contemplated before. A Copernican revolution, forever changing my vision. Catherine, the protagonist, firmly believed that “if she should be very good, the situation would in some mysterious manner improve”. These words pierced through me because I believed the same. I had, until I read her story, been horrified on realizing no happy outcome would follow the girl’s proper conduct.
    It does in fairy tales, which had constituted until then the bulk of my reading. It does (did, a few decades ago) in all children fiction. You perform the right thing and all ends well. The idea isn’t limited to literature, being the main pillar of education at large. Follow rules and your wellness will be ensured. Disobey and you’ll be punished.
    Reading Washington Square, the chilling hypothesis dawned on me you could be good and miserable. You could do your part, please authorities, and still get unhappiness in return. A consequence derived from such premise: those in charge of your wellness might fail to provide it, no matter how you’d behave. Those in charge of you might not do your good. One more passage and the equation will be complete. Those in charge of you might be bad.
Though the epiphany itself remained indelible (my repeating and pondering the sentence, being flabbergasted and scared, hoping the plot might still shift and reward the heroine) as I grew up, I couldn’t retrieve my emotion, feel once more that anguished wonder.
As an adult I wished to read the novel again—see if it would have the same impact, perhaps reveal something else—but I kept putting it off.  My hesitation was wise… how could the book be the same half a century later?
As it has been widely said, the plot is elementary. A girl wishes to marry someone her family doesn’t like. Obstacles arise and she waits, wasting her life, marrying no one in the end. The inspiration came to James through a friend reporting a gossip, something that happened to an acquaintance of hers. The story is stereotypical, well embedded in lots of previous literature.
    Does the author approach the trite scenario in surprising ways? First of all he defines the work a ‘tragicomedy’. He treats this teary matter of romantic legacy with terse irony and adamant impassivity (the opposite of what I had perceived as a child). How amazed I was on discovering a text full of tongue-in-cheek humor. Austin, the heroine’s father (whose point of view the narrator often espouses) is ironic by default. But the narrator also turns it into an irony  at Austin’s expense—creating a shift in perspective, adding further amusement. This lightness of tone never ceases except for an episode at mid narrative, when the mood briskly changes. Just an interlude, then the merriment resumes.
That I had missed the fun entirely isn’t strange, since I read in my mother tongue. No matter how good the translator, humor, satire and sarcasm lose some of their luster in a different idiom. They depend too much on linguistic subtleties and on cultural references. In addition, irony doesn’t belong to childhood. I took everything literally, impervious to allusions, blind to the laced filigree of undertones. Not unlikely what occurs to Catherine as she interacts with the other characters of the story, whose language she doesn’t fully understand. As if she were also a stranger or, somehow, not the targeted audience.
    Tragicomedy. The definition is two-fold. Where is the tragic element? Is it also intended ironically? No, but is meant in the original sense, the Greek one, which didn’t imply pathos. Tragedy indicated the presence of a conflict of major proportions, needing a sacrifice for its denouement. A sacrificed, ‘tragos’—the goat killed in order to pacify gods. Is there one in the novel? Indeed. But her crude fate so intertwines with the comedic aspect, to unravel the strands is about impossible. The reader cannot, the author does not.  Only a bittersweet taste lingers.
    As a child, I must have empathized with the suffering of Catherine Sloper as her dad crushed her dreams, and she could find neither allies, nor the inner strength needed for rebellion. To this, James is indifferent as the reader probably should—the tragedy doesn’t belong here. It is all set in the first chapter, then is left to simmer alone on the back burner.
     Who is Catherine Sloper? We know who she isn’t. She isn’t male (like her dead brother, whom her father adored). She is not her mother (whom her father worshipped, and who passed delivering the girl). Before getting a chance at being, she is stigmatized as a double non-entity. Being given her mother’s name worsens things, as she becomes the ‘wrong’ Catherine—a cheater, a plagiarist. She is essentially a negative space and such she remains until the end of the novel, unreachable to the other characters, to the author himself. They unsuccessfully pursue her otherness, up to the last question uttered by her returning, repented lover. She refuses him. “Then why didn’t you marry?” Weren’t you waiting for me, he means to say. We all believed it so far. Did you fool us? Her motives, heart, mind, soul, stay undecipherable until the end. She eludes definition.
    In a way, her tragedy was consumed before the start. She should not have been born (like it could be said of all creatures conceived under unauspicious circumstances—the cohort of the undesired). Her lot is Pandora’s vase the author, we said, places on the stove and lets simmer, wrapped in hieroglyphs of meandering smoke. And yet, seen in context, Catherine’s fate isn’t terrible. In the mid nineteenth century women died during child birth,  and infant mortality was extremely high—must be why we don’t pay close attention as the author nonchalantly sketches the premises. Untimely, death of one of more relatives was common. People moved on at a quick pace, with an attitude of healthy survival. In James’ novel though, for some reason, all remain stuck in time, space, and feelings.
    Let us introduce the other characters. Austin, Catherine’s father, is an amateur philosopher (a philosopher-gentleman, as his wife has left enough money for him not to work). His sister Lavinia is an early widow who did not re-marry. She lives in Austin’s house, to help in raising the orphaned girl. Morris (the maguffin) is Catherine’s suitor, a lazy young man seeking a rich wife to support him. Two more relatives, seldom called in, provide sobering advice and perspective as tragic choruses do. But the action truly involves just the chamber quartet James skillfully scores, expertly balancing voices, effects, volumes.
Balancing might not be the right word. We said Catherine is a negative space. We could also define her as silence, as a cavity sucking in sound. Thus a tension exists between the trio of players and the dumb presence in the corner—surely it is intentional, as it engenders dynamism and momentum.
    In his book The Philosopher and The Wolf2, author Mark Rowlands splits humanity in two types, one reminiscent of the ape, the other of the wolf. This distinction has no factual basis—it only refers to behaviors and their source of inspiration. If we adopt it, Austin, Morris, Lavinia are doubtlessly apes. With no exception, though with various degrees of awareness, all they do or say is studied in view of manipulative results. They never stop plotting. Catherine doesn’t. She doesn’t realize they do, and endless misunderstanding ensues—subtle equivoque, subtle laughter, sweet and sour.
    Why doesn’t she? As a child who shouldn’t have survived, who hasn’t been mothered, with whom no bond of affection has been established, Catherine predictably develops an unusual relationship with reality. She is deemed stupid by most, her father in particular, yet the narrator isn’t sure. Doubts are formulated in the beginning she might be “extremely shy”—which wouldn’t imply lack of intellect, only difficulty in expressing herself before others (caused by self-consciousness, insecurity, maybe emotional vulnerability).
    As the novel unfolds such hypothesis dulls away. Catherine is seen more and more through the eyes of Aunt, Dad, suitor, none of which keeps her in great esteem. Yet some hesitation, some wavering about her mental skills—about her worth in general—persists, as if the author himself groped in the dark, unsure of his conclusions.
    With a modern eye, it is unavoidable to see elements of the autistic spectrum (as vague and debatable as such attributions can be) in Catherine’s ways. Scarce communicability, little understanding of social interactions, incapacity of simulation and manipulation, univocity in the appreciation of others—whom she thinks entirely good or ultimately bad—all belong to the autistic functioning as described, for instance, by author Temple Gardin. In popular culture, movies as The Party or Being There come to mind, in which actor Peter Sellers embodies a human type clashing with societal norms in similar ways.
    Not sure how, not sure why, Catherine is different. She belongs to a wilderness from which no human tenderness has rescued her—metaphorically the wolves bred her and she is a wolf herself, ferocious in her meekness. Such fierce quality gradually emerges as the novel proceeds, in the shape of stubborn tenacity, inability of compromise—finally, in her being unafraid of her own fear.
Thus the complex games of human society—in which Austin, Morris, Lavinia especially excel—are wasted on Catherine, as her singularity is lost to them. While it rubs against their predictability it gives texture and grit to the story, making it entertaining. Slightly unsettling, as well. The discrepancy between incompatible functioning modes is an old comedic device, yet James doesn’t apply it conventionally. The trick—if it is one—escapes his control, leading him towards territories unknown.
    Who is Catherine Sloper, again? James makes redundant use of the word ‘heroine’ while referring to her—so much, we understand he is gently pulling our leg. The anti-hero myth is about to explode in Western Literature, but hasn’t yet. The anti-heroine fad will indeed never happen. Yet the author seems to be trying his hand at shaping the antithesis of a romantic female protagonist. The reversal is so rigorous it almost becomes fastidious. Catherine is large versus ethereal, glutton versus anorexic, capable of sleeping through any trouble instead than insomniac, never sick—not even with a canonical headache—a good, robust hiker. In spite of such plethora of plainness, she likes flashy, coquettish dresses. Though—the narrator specifies—she wants ‘them’ to look good, not ‘her in them’. What does it mean? Alas she can’t see herself. On her even mirrors are wasted.
    James insists on her being conspicuous. Are her stretched out dimensions meant to subtract grace from the picture? Again, a legitimate doubt suggests the humorous intent might have slipped out of control. The large size could have a symbolic value. Tragic, archaic, statuary—this character is slightly  bigger than life.
    Tragedy, I have remarked, didn’t seem too mean in her case. Yes, she came into this word wrong foot forward, but it happens and folks do their best with the cards they are dealt. The author paints her as not-quite-bright, not-quite-beautiful, yet not-sure. As I said there is an element of elusion, lots of smoke in the air, foggy mirrors. She might be stupid or not. More than ugly, she is unattractive—as if she hadn’t yet understood what seduction is. She also leads a privileged life in a sheltered bourgeois mansion. She has wealth of her own and she will inherit from Dad. She is a good party as her handsome suitor’s tenacity proves.
    Although, as early as in chapter two Austin declares: “no young man (…) will ever be in love with Catherine”. How does he know? Did he so decide? It sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy, a spell by the envious godmother fairy, like a punishment Austin must have carefully and firmly planned, no matter if consciously. She will be denied love, period. His, of course, but anyone else’s as an extra measure.
Why? It was stated earlier. Catherine is a thief—she has stolen life from the two beings Austin cared for. She is also a marker of grief, a monument to loss. The resentment her father has built against the unwanted child is tenacious, multilayered, ossified. That is why he cannot see her, pushing her into symbolical non-existence—a form of polite, daily killing. He can’t see her thus she can’t see herself, and no one can. Spells of annihilation function that way. He blots her as he would an ink stain on a stark white shirtfront, stubbornly reappearing by magic. A bloodstain.
    Does he hate his daughter really that much? Am I exaggerating? No. His hate isn’t original, though, not of his making. It was not there when the baby appeared (nothing was—she landed into a void). Hate in Austin’s case is a byproduct of resentment as it piled up, unrecognized, mixed with unprocessed grief, unbearable nostalgia, guilt and a sense of failure—all those gluey, dense, painful feelings I perceived as a child because they were present. Only sealed in.
    Catherine doesn’t know her father hates her, because he doesn’t know either. She believes he loves her because she doesn’t know what love is. The generic protection he provides is the best approximation to love she has experienced, besides the fake-intimacy erratically offered by her gossiping and delusory aunt, and the eloquent lures of seductive suitor. She is sure Austin loves her and she loves him in return, in the form she was taught her love should take, which is obedience.
    Even this doesn’t work though, and that is where tragedy thickens. Austin’s hate isn’t tragic per se, as in the upper-class world of the novel such sentiment, duly buried, will not push him towards concrete forms of violence. Does he abuse her? The term doesn’t apply. He strips her of freedom, self-determination, power of choice. At some point he declares: “Catherine has no sense of her rights”. How hypocritical. Didn’t he conscientiously work to achieve such result? Yet the term abuse, no, doesn’t apply. Women’s rights didn’t yet exist. Some women claimed some, but that happened on an individual basis. Fathers were tyrannical as a rule. Some loved their children and that could remarkably mitigate tyranny, even defeat it. Here there’s no love. Still this isn’t the tragedy.
    Which resides in the double bind, the catch twenty-two wherein father and daughter are trapped. Austin wants Catherine to be stupid, dull, a submissive loser forever obeying him (his wish has two objectives, as he wants to punish her—endowing her with those diminishing qualities—and he also seeks justification for fiercely disliking her) but he simultaneously wants the opposite. The more plainly and self-effacingly she behaves, the more she bores him, not only making his longing for brilliant, beautiful wife (the real Catherine) throb, also offering no resistance to his need to aggress her. If she doesn’t oppose or rebel, he can’t win. Thus she cannot be right, whatever she does—which is where madness begins.
Catherine isn’t aware of such snare. She also gropes in the dark, muddles through, navigating the day in search of whatever contentment she can find. Cupcakes, scarlet dresses, a compliment by an appealing young man. Eventually she will step into another impasse—less deadly, but for her it will be the breaking point. Dad will put her in front of the unsolvable alternative. It is me or Morris. My love or his. She will not be able to choose. For the narrative, her drama is of course a moment of glee. How ironic that she should be crucified by such a dilemma, while neither man gives a damn! And her feelings for them are so seminal, so approximate and immature—though sincere—she could thrash them (her feelings) and just start anew. But she doesn’t know and she gets stuck, glued in place like her father. The house is a mire. A coffin. The kingdom where poor Sleeping Beauty snores on.
She is stuck, not entirely. There is a shift at some point. A brief moment of revelation. Not revolution. It must be the only catharsis this dolorous book could afford. I mentioned a passage where the merry tone (the delicate yet relentless irony) pauses, as briskly as if a mask had fallen off, the strings of a puppet were cut. It occurs when Austin and Catherine are traveling through the Alps and take a long hike. Few words are exchanged, about Catherine’s wish to be married with Morris and Austin’s unflinching dissent. Few words, as Catherine is incapable of sustaining a conversation, let alone a discussion. Yet she is stubborn, unwilling to give up. Austin loses it, then. He does nothing, but hate is spread on his face. She sees it and she recognizes it. How? Did she see it before? Is it instinct, is it in her genes? She knows what that is and what that does. Like an animal—like the wolf she is—she smells danger and her limbic system reacts, measuring relative chances of surviving or perishing. Then the fauve in her takes the lead, musters adrenalin, controls fear. What just happened to Austin? Change of setting. Nature. Seclusion. Middle of nowhere. Winter. Cold. Exhaustion. The neat, velvet-curtained theater of home, with its rituals, is far. The ape was left behind, in the cage. There’s a wolf in Austin as well, and now Catherine knows.
    It is a small rupture. Nothing major changes. When the two come back from their traveling, no agreement has been stipulated. No one has won. Though instigated by her Aunt (who lives the adventure by proxy) Catherine can’t bring herself to elope. After all she is an anti-heroine and such she will remain. Morris, lost his hopes, drops the sponge and vanishes. Austin stays the same—just dies when his time comes. Catherine becomes a wealthy spinster, devoted to charities, contented with little pleasures. Until decades later, her suitor returns.
    I don’t think I had read the Odyssey at nine. Coming close—the book was in our sixth grade curriculum, and a TV serial about to be aired. I still didn’t know about it, or I would have seen the Queen. As irony goes, the ending reference to a great epic isn’t strange. On the contrary, it sparkles. The cozy New York bourgeois dwelling is Ithaca. The hero comes back from protracted wandering appropriately weathered, bearded, worn, slightly beaten, reasonably apologetic, ready for restful domesticity. Here’s the impervious lady at the loom. She has kept the hearth warm, so to speak, refusing to leave—as if home were a lighthouse needed for the lost-at-sea to find shore. She has rejected all suitors (two of them, very serious, had sought Catherine after Morris was gone). Careless of her youth (her life) being spoiled, she has missed opportunities, occupying herself with pastimes. Literally this is what the loom, or ‘fancy work’, is. Useless things—these doilies, table runs, kerchiefs keeping her hands busy, her eyes focused while hours, days, weeks slip off her pockets. She sits like Penelope, doing what Penelope does. Consequently Ulysses returns. But she curtly sends him back, happy to keep Ithaca for herself.
I had no idea by then of what Washington Square looked like. As I said, the book I perused was hand-bound. No glimpse of brick buildings on a cover—sycamores, ornate garden gates, bonneted or boiler-hatted passers-by—gave me at least a hint. When, decades later, I saw the place, adding two and two was easy. I could relate the architecture with seclusion, façade, stale traditions and patrimony obsessions forming the background of the story.
    Yet as an adult reader I often wondered about the title, which I found a bit off the point. Off the box, to stick with the container analogy—like an ill-adjusted lid. As the story evolves, I don’t feel the family house growing with it, taking on a meaning that would justify its denominating role.
Obviously. Because what makes a house grow (be alive, breathe and pulse) if not its inhabitants and their interactions? We know nothing vibrates, nothing circulates in the Washington Square’s dwelling. Austin muses in the sanctum of his studio—briefly squatted by irreverent Morris who comes visit Aunt (in order to further plot), while Dad brings his daughter to Europe (in order to change her mind).Catherine keeps to her room unless summoned by Dad, always for unpleasant reasons. Conversations at the dinner table are spare, as the girl has nothing to say. Aunt Lavinia is in her own fantasy world—in our time she would be a gamer. An escapist. She is at her happiest when she wears a cloak, sneaks inside a coach, goes out on a gossiping mission.  
    What is, about Washington Square—besides its real estate value on which Morris certainly has claims, yet no more than he covets the bank accounts? After Austin dies, unmarried Catherine refuses to leave, though it would be convenient and advantageous. She ‘sticks’ to the house, as she had stuck to the idea of marrying Morris in spite of her dad opposing. Does her attitude suggest the place is more meaningful than it seems? Those red bricks might be the only anchor, only viable protection the heroin has identified, as people have consistently failed her. It’s the literal carapace she can retreat within, the rock where she can keep dry in stormy waters.
 But names are important, are they?
Catherine is named like her mother, Henry James like his father—who was a philosopher, and the model for Austin. James was born 2, Washington Place, just around the corner from where he set the Slopers to live. Aunt Kate (Catherine Walsh Marshall) came to stay with James’ family after a short-lived marriage. Nieces and nephews were fond of her. Alice, Henry’s sister, describes her as a meek, selfless woman. We know James also never married and had a lonely life. A bouquet of scattered clues, random and none especially pertinent, indicate not an autobiographic intention, but a kind of appropriation, a profound intimacy of the author with the novel he reportedly wasn’t too proud of. The title seems to be one of these markers—a cloth label on a baby blanket, on a backpack, or a stuffed toy. Mine.
     No autobiographic intentions. Together with the random markers are the obvious discrepancies. I am not saying James identified with Catherine (it would have been sweet and brave—oui, je suis Catherine Sloper), or with any of the characters, as the choice of an omniscient narrator apparently implies. But I’m sure he explored in this novel areas of the human experience very crucial to him—without need to hypothesize which ones—and on naming characters, choosing settings, titling the work, he pointedly indicated such closeness. That he later excluded the novel from his collected works, labeling it an ‘accident’, isn’t exceedingly strange—the book deals so much with denial, the theme might have spilled off the page.
    I am happy about my recent reading of Washington Square and the palette of tastes it provided, different from what my mouth recalled. One thing leaves me unsatisfied—how my psyche blanks when I try to remember the shock of Catherine’s discovery, as she gradually realized her dad wouldn’t deliver happiness no matter how well she’d behave. There are similar memories whose emotions I can easily revive—for example the astonishment when I saw the ocean was blue, being priorly persuaded it was red. In this case, I am left to mental speculation, dry reasoning.
    Let me look at the novel instead, analyze what the epiphany did for Catherine. Nothing truly spectacular, I said. Perhaps she hardened a bit, she became less lenient, less preoccupied to please specific people. She enjoyed material treats in a fuller way, demonstrating more healthy selfishness. She also gave more to the unidentified neighbor—glad to share what she finally owned. She grew up, in a reasonable way, having shed youthful illusions—a regular coming of age, the end of childhood occurring when the adults-in-charge lose their omnipotence, cease being infallible, being gods. Many novels were written on this topic, somehow embedded in most literature. And we might read novels (in great measure) to re-live a number of times that season of awakening.
    My coming-of-age could have started right there—“a Gallehault indeed…,,—then needed a lifetime to unfold without me knowing. It must be why I can’t isolate the moment—the process is still on. Yes, it took a lifetime to undo the link of cause-consequence implying that a certain outcome would derive from following a set of rules, a preordained behavior labeled as ‘good’. Am I am stating the obvious, if I say the world is a cauldron in which an imponderable number of elements constantly mix and mingle? Things happen, and keep happening, because of such complex motion. Catherine Sloper the first dies of delivery, due to a combination of circumstances of which Catherine Sloper 2, the surviving girl, isn’t responsible. Austin’s pain, or just disappointment, growing like a venomous stalactite and icing his heart, is a process out of Austin’s control. Catherine’s prudent gentleness will not tenderize Austin’s feelings, just as her red laced dress will not buy Morris’ love—not even her money would have, since he had none.
    In Elizabeth and Her German Garden3, Elizabeth von Arnim affirms plants are better than humans (or easier, more restful), because with them we are surely and always at fault. How true! A cause-consequence effect can be at least partially applied to the vegetal domain. If we take better care of a tree, it will better thrive. If we appropriately water it, it will bloom. Of course even in such field the trick isn’t foolproof, but there are chances of success. Not with human beings, the author suggests. Among our kin, unpredictability, caprice, arbitrariness reign.
    It took me a longtime to realize prayers don’t cause miracles. Sacrifices, devotions, do not. Even when we believe religions are lures, we are imbibed by an attitude of superstition, which induces us to perform rituals in order to propitiate destiny. It was hard to understand justice doesn’t always prevail, and lawful behavior doesn’t grant it. All those things we learn slowly, though the first insight can be shockingly fast—the ringing bell a facial expression, a word overheard behind a closed door. Revelation is a gunshot, revolution the building of a cathedral.
Why am I disserting so much, getting so far from the Slopers? To understand why this not-too-relevant plot was so important to me, why I had to keep it enshrined—a holy wafer in a tabernacle, a relic to be preserved intact. Clearly, it introduced me to the paramount concept of free will, yet not intended in a religious context. Free will as free choice, as the need to create my own purpose, goals, meanings, and determine the path to walk in order to approach them, with or without guides. Possibly without. With or without love, as it is rare, un-granted, erratic—a random phenomenon on which we have no control, no claim.
    Almost simultaneously to my early reading of James I saw a movie I also cherished—vividly recalling the final scene, plus general contents and tone. The effect it had of me was as sharp as that of Washington Square, and it came to complete the shift in consciousness activated by the novel.
    I am retrospectively amazed at the irony of the association, as I absorbed with the same awe, then worshipped with the same devotion, a masterpiece and a series D product. The movie, Caterina da Siena4—here’s my grandma’s name, once again—was a critical and financial failure. Not too bad, in fact, and to me it was magnificent. It portrays the coming of age of a Catherine whose challenges are opposite to those met by James’ heroine. She has a doting, empowering father and a wild, daring, explosive personality, bringing her to subvert gender rules and expectations. She dares mingling with politics at the higher level, dealing with kings and popes, aristocrats and commanders, getting them to follow her lead, then becoming—an illiterate girl—the Italian Joan of Arc. As she blooms—her charisma and power a straight arrow, shooting forward—she hammers over and over the two words she remained famous for—“I, Catherine”.
Dear identity, what a mysterious puzzle you are. Her incipit—quite plain if you think of it—was bitterly criticized by her mentors (she is a nun and her actions are framed in a strictly Catholic context). All she does, she is reminded, serves god, is inspired by god, especially in the name of god. She understands. The movie ends with one last “I, Catherine” formulated after sobering meditation. She is talking to her creator, in public. “I, Catherine, am proud of this glory, which is only yours”.
   The movie was pious and orthodox, meant to commemorate a Catholic saint, the patroness of Italy. It did what it was supposed to, and as a Catholic child, I got the point. Yet somehow the message of the last line was double, its ambiguity powerful. It apparently said that a woman (at the time when the action occurred? when the movie was made?) couldn’t own her words, decisions, orations. She had to un-sign them and credit someone else, godly as she wished as long as she’d refer to it, possibly, with a masculine pronoun.
Truly I could un-gender the issue, and imagine a monk being asked—should he accomplish feats straying from the assigned path, as many of them did—to credit the Virgin. Claiming authorship and responsibility is hard for everyone. But for all the Catherines (Grandma, Sloper, da Siena) gender was still part of the yarn to untangle—one of the hooks pinning down into muddy nothingness. The heroine of the D movie seemed to have found a small loophole, as she kept those two simple words in front of the following formulaic flourishing. Maybe little Sloper heiress did too, when she sent Ulysses away and came back to the embroidery loom. Perhaps she even smiled.
1James, Henry. Washington Square. New York: Modern Library, 1997
2 Rowlands, Mark.The Philosopher and The Wolf, Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death, and Happiness.New York: Pegasus Books, 2008
3 von Arnim, Elizabeth. Elizabeth and Her German Garden. New York: Random House, 2001
4Caterina da Siena. dir. Palella, Oreste. Rome: 1947

Toti O'Brien

Toti O'Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in Pidgeonholes, Heartwood Literary, Wilderness House, and JMWW Review.