Nowhere is the devastation of betrayal depicted more clearly than in Henry James’ Washington Square. Set in 1840s New York, it is the story of the daughter of a widowed physician who feels burdened by the plain and dull daughter of his brilliant and beautiful wife. Catherine is completely unaware of her father’s disappointment in her. She adores him. When a fortune-seeking young man courts her, her father knows the young man’s true interest, but innocent and vulnerable Catherine is completely enamored. She accidentally learns both the young man’s true intentions and her father’s regard for her simultaneously. The discovery devastates her.
It is a sentimental fantasy to believe that trust can be restored once it is destroyed, however possible forgiveness may be. There is a common tenuous kind of pseudo-trust created by vanity or wishful thinking that merely demands repeated assurances, but this is not trust. Real trust might be called “blind faith,” which inhabits only innocent souls. When this is shattered, heaven weeps, for it is an evil.
Infidelity, which means betrayal of faith, is original sin, repeated through the ages. When Christ says, “Repent and believe in me,” he says, Admit the evil of your broken faith, and your innocence will be restored to you in the Father’s forgiveness. When we do as he says—Repent and Believe—Eden is restored to us, the kingdom of heaven. But only in a full acknowledgement of the irrevocability of our sin can we grasp the miracle of Christ. And that is hard indeed for hardened souls.
In James’ novel, Catherine remains a spinster after her father’s eventual death, but though she never marries, she slowly gains trust again, albeit it is a trust in herself alone. Her life is not an unhappy one; she has friends and she counsels young women who come to seek her advice. Then, in middle age, her former suitor suddenly re-appears, and an opportunity for a kind of revenge presents itself, by inculcating his trust in her; it is apparent that he believes she is the same naïve woman he knew. She takes that opportunity. And the reader is happy that she does so.
Whatever the character may feel afterwards, the reader might reflect on his own gratification that she has betrayed the trust of her would-be suitor. And thus it seems there is no safe haven on earth for our trust, not even in ourselves.