In the mid-1800's, the wealthy Sloper family - widowed surgeon Dr. Austin Sloper, his adult daughter Catherine Sloper (Dr. Sloper's only surviving child), and Dr. Sloper's recently widowed sister Lavinia Penniman - live in an opulent house at 16 Washington Square, New York City. They have accrued their wealth largely through Dr. Sloper's hard work. Despite the lessons that Dr. Sloper has paid for in all the social graces for her, Catherine is a plain, simple, awkward and extremely shy woman who spends all her free time alone doing embroidery when she is not doting on her father. Catherine's lack of social charm and beauty - unlike her deceased mother - is obvious to Dr. Sloper, who hopes that Lavinia will act as her guardian in becoming more of a social person, and ultimately as chaperon if Catherine were ever to meet the right man. The first man ever to show Catherine any attention is the handsome Morris Townsend, who she met at a family party. Catherine is initially uncertain as to Morris' intentions, never having been called on before by a gentleman, but she quickly falls in love with him, as he does with her. They plan to be married. Being a romantic, Lavinia does whatever she can to advance their relationship. However, Dr. Sloper does not trust Morris, believing him to be a fortune hunter who is only interested in Catherine for her sizable inheritance. His beliefs are strengthened after a candid discussion with Morris' sister, Mrs. Montgomery. Dr. Sloper does whatever he can to prevent the two from getting married - the entire reason for his disapproval which he does not fully disclose to either Catherine or Morris - including taking Catherine away for an extended European vacation. Ultimately, incidents with both her father and Morris permanently change Catherine's view of life.