Betraying Family Ties

         The 1880 novel Washington Square, by Henry James, filmed as The Heiress in 1949 by William Wyler, displayed betrayal and deception, among family members, as commonplace. Some characters feared betrayal, while others find themselves astonished when they are betrayed. The novel and film have several instances of failed expectations and broken promises.

         I will begin with Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson), who experiences betrayal by his family. First, his son passes away in the book, then his wife passes away in both book and movie, leaving the respectable physician with Catherine (Olivia de Havilland), a disappointment from birth. He is disappointed with her because she is not a boy; she does not possess her mother's beautiful appearance; she is not clever like her father. Catherine remains boring and unattractive as she ages, furthering her father's disappointment. Later in the novel, Catherine betrays her father by not taking his advice on her engagement. He vows to disown her if she marries Morris (Montgomery Clift). Even though his betrayals come from his immediate family, he does not value family bonds.

         Now I will discuss Catherine, who is deceived primarily by Morris, with a dramatic scene of abandonment. Morris first meets Catherine at an engagement party for her cousin Marian (Mona Freeman). Aunt Lavinia, a desperate romantic (Miriam Hopkins), sparks romance between Morris and Catherine. At first, Morris is portrayed as being genuinely interested in Catherine. The courting process is very fast; and Morris falls in love with Catherine; well not really Catherine but rather her money. Dr. Sloper has not approved of the relationship from the beginning and urges Catherine not to marry Morris. Sloper feels Morris is only after Catherine's money, and he convinces her to go abroad with him. Upon returning to Washington Square, Sloper makes it clear that Catherine will be disinherited if she marries Morris. Morris learns of this decision and flees town. Morris shows his true colors of selfishness, when he abandons Catherine. After Dr. Sloper dies, twenty years later in the book and much sooner in the movie, Morris returns, asking for Catherine's hand. She denies him, paying him back for his disloyalty, more politely in the novel and more dramatically in the movie, by having the maid, Maria (Vanessa Brown) bolt the door against Morris, when he returns to reenact the elopement that he had run away from before.

         Catherine is the primary target for lies and deception in this novel. Between her cruel father and selfish fiancé, Catherine is doomed from the beginning. However, Catherine does learn that she is intelligent and can make her own decisions, defying the betrayal she was dished by the men in her life.

Sarah Powell

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