Washington Square and The Heiress


We leave, for a moment, our discussion of Miss Archer, although, God willing and time enough, I do hope to return to it, and consider the case of Catherine Sloper, cellulose and celluloid. Washington Square is considered the first novel of the so-called "middle period" of Henry James's writing.

I was attracted to Washington Square by a recent trip to New York in which I was able to take in some of the historic sites. While I did not see the Washington Square arch by daylight, I had seen it on a previous trip. I was also attracted by the fact that it was the novel that immediately preceded The Portrait of a Lady and seemed to have some of the same concerns.

Catherine Sloper is the plain, dull, somewhat dimwitted unwed daughter of Dr. Austin Sloper, a complex, demanding, tyrannical figure of a father who dominates Catherine's life in the same way that Gilbert Osmond dominates the life of his daughter Pansy--possibly to similar effect. And that is part of what makes Washington Square such an interesting study.

At the beginning of Washington Square, poor, plain Catherine is approached at a party by dashing and handsome Morris Townsend. Out of the blue he comes to her and starts to be entranced by her charms. She is alarmed, never having recognized any charms within herself to charm anyone, and pleased. The courtship soon begins.

Within days, Austin Sloper is disapproving of the whole thing. The disapproval grows until he decides that he will disinherit Catherine if she continues the relationship. While this does not deter her, it does throw a monkey wrench into her relationship with Morris.

The subtle psychological complexity of the novel is thrown into high relief when one views The Heiress, a William Wyler film adapted from a play, in turn adapted from Washington Square. As the movie sets out, much is similar to the progress of the novel, but it is in the complicated windings of the ending that the rock-solid superiority of the book is brought forward. From this point on, let only those who have no intention of enjoying either continue, for here be spoilers.

In the novel, Catherine Sloper is ultimately jilted by Morris for whom her mere 10,000 a year is insufficient when he could have 30,000. As they plan their elopement, he leaves for a "California business trip" from which he does not return. Catherine stays on in her father's house, becoming a spinster. After a number of years, her father becomes ill. On his deathbed, he asks her to renounce her intention to marry Morris Townsend and she refuses. He alters his will and substantially removes her from it. Morris does return after the death of Dr. Sloper and he takes up where he left off, somewhat older, but not all that much the worse for wear. Catherine receives him once and then tells him to stay away.

In the movie, much of this dynamic is gone. Catherine comes to an awareness that her Father "doesn't love her" (doesn't value her and is constantly deriding her is more to the point). In the book, the realization is more like the latter. Catherine plans an elopement with Morris and embraces the idea that she will be disinherited by the disagreeable old man. In the book, the idea of being disinherited is a horror for Catherine, not so much for the sake of the money, but for the sake of the injury it will do her father and the family. While she celebrates the disinheritance with Morris, she plans their elopement that evening. Of course, he never shows up. In the course of a short time, Dr. Sloper dies, with Catherine refusing even to come to his bedside. He does not disinherit her (the cinematic Dr. Sloper being a good deal more compassionate and kinder than the literary Dr. Sloper). In fact, in the book, one gets the sense that Dr. Sloper is being almost entirely arbitrary in his "testing" of Catherine, relishing the challenge of wills more that being particularly concerned about how Catherine will turn out.

In due time (in the film) Morris returns and offers an excuse for not running away with her. Catherine appears to accept it and arranges to leave with him. When he returns to elope, she refuses to answer the door to him.

The two works have their own strengths and attractions. I doubt any but the most skilled and subtle director could have brought Washington Sqaure as it stands to the screen in the 1940s. Indeed, we needed to make it into the postmodern era before the logic of the ending could appeal and resonate with us. We have an nearly instinctive understanding of Dr. Sloper and Catherine and the dynamics of their relationship now. That James was able to see, understand, and chronicle all of this in the 1880s stands as a remarkable testament to his acuity as author. Catherine Sloper is "a type" who, as I implied, shows up again with Pansy in The Portrait of a Lady. We do not know that Pansy will come to the same end as Catherine; however, when she tries to exert her own will even a little, her father sends her away to a convent for additional "finishing."

But back to Catherine Sloper. The Catherine of the movie becomes hard, brittle, hateful, and harsh. She internalizes what she thinks of her father, not what her father actually was and did. She turns herself into the image she has made of him. In the book Catherine falls into a kind of dazed submissiveness. After Morris turns her down when she has come to terms with her disinheritance and offer to go away with him, she returns to her father and, essentially, shuts down. She becomes his companion in physical person, but her spirit is largely absent. She never deliberately hurts anyone, Morris included, but one gets the impression that she never engages anyone in anything more than casual conversation.

Washington Square is an amazing portrait in minature of profound psychological complexity, and, it seems to me, accuracy. Catherine Sloper is taken from hopeful debutant to reclusive spinster on a vector of her Father's making but only with her nearly complete cooperation and acquiescence. In some sense, Washington Square is even more "feminist" than The Portrait of a Lady, showing at once how subject a woman's life was to the life of the men around her and how that subjection profoundly colors her life, her interactions, and her person.

While I find the book a better exercise and a better piece of fiction, both the book and the movie have their own individual rewards--the rewards of the movie being Olivia de Haviland and Sir Ralph Richardson in some very fine performances.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on June 23, 2008 7:12 AM.

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