Catherine Becomes a Woman

         The 1880 novel Washington Square, written by Henry James, filmed in 1949 as The Heiress by director William Wyler, is a story of greed, love, and the manipulation of a naïve heart. In the novel, Catherine, the daughter of a wealthy and respected doctor, was raised with everyone believing that she was a plain, unattractive, uneducated girl. When she finally reached womanhood, little changed. The twentieth-century film goes into much greater detail, however, in portraying Catherine as a more assertive and vindictive woman than the nineteenth-century novel does, in which her transition is much more sudden.

         Catherine, however, does have one thing going for her. She is to receive a large inheritance from her father upon his death, not to mention, the money she has already received because of the death of her mother. One day a young man named Morris becomes involved with Catherine. Dr. Sloper, Catherine's father, who has contempt for he, is convinced that Morris is only interested in Catherine for her money. The story continues to unfold with Catherine becoming the true victim of everyone involved. Throughout the story she plays the part of a doormat. She will not stand up to her father, and she does whatever Morris wants her to do. As I read, I found myself continually losing respect for this woman who cannot manage a simple declarative sentence.

         Finally, however, she realizes Morris' true intentions, but she has been pushed to her breaking point by her father. She finally becomes a woman that I respect. She is through with Morris and can finally refuse him, and she now refuses to give in and admit to her father that he was right. She will not let either of them have peace. She becomes an assertive bitch, and I like her. But she is still somewhat restrained in her actions, for she quietly and politely tends to her father till he dies and quietly politely sends Morris on her way.

         In the movie, Catherine is portrayed in the same way. However, the new, cold-hearted Catherine, as depicted by Olivia de Havilland, is given much more attention. The movie reveals her to be much more intent upon gaining revenge on Morris, as depicted by Montgomery Clift, instead of just refusing him. The falling out with her father, as played by Ralph Richardson, is more extreme; and I found myself liking her that much more. Even when her father is on his deathbed and he asks her to promise him that her relationship with Morris is completely over, she refuses to say yes even when in her heart she knows otherwise. A short time later when Morris returns and wants her back, she leads him to believe that she will return to him, but slashes his hopes by having the maid lock him out of her house as he comes to take her away.

         Catherine, in a way, represents many women of the past century. They refused to continue to be obedient servants any longer. Women had been done wrong one too many times. Now we call the shots. I guess that is why I liked this novel and its cinematic counterpart so much. The woman emerges victorious more overtly in the twentieth-century film than in the original nineteenth-century novel.

Lynnsey McGarrh

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