Romance and the gothic, two dominant modes in the American novel, loom over Washington Square and frame expectations for how the plot might develop. Interestingly, all of these expectations are dashed.
The narration personifies both modes: romance is a meddling aunt, the gothic, a fierce and domineering father. Under their shadow, an allegory emerges both from the protagonist’s troubled courtship by a charming rake out to marry her for her fortune and from the narration’s evocation of and subsequent refusal of romantic and gothic expectations for how that courtship might proceed. The stakes of this allegory are nothing less than the novelist’s sense of the aesthetic possibilities of the American novel.
The heroine survives the mechanations of her father and aunt. She also escapes the rake’s attempts to marry her. And then twenty years after their engagement is called off, in the novel’s final and most powerful scene, the heroine, no longer young and no longer innocent, is confronted again by the rake and he still has eyes on her money. But this time around the heroine has her eyes on him as well. He speaks, and she watches, and what she sees—powerfully and in an instant—is who he is and who he was. Fortified by a clear view of his character, she rejects him one last time and returns to her ordinary but not unhappy life.
What I read in this final staging of vision as knowledge is the author’s self-conscious choice of a realist mode and his glorious discovery of the character’s gaze as it’s vehicle.