Imagine that the love of your life suddenly walks out on you, only to return years later expecting you to simply take him back. Well, this is exactly what happens in Henry James's 1880 novel, Washington Square, as well as in the 1949 film, The Heiress, directed by William Wyler. Both the novel and the film go hand in hand for the most part, but the story line ends in two completely different versions (at least between the couple's last meeting).
The moment that Morris Townsend walks out on Catherine Sloper is the moment that her heart breaks in two. Catherine is left alone with her aunt, waiting and hoping that Morris will come back. But, as time is soon to tell, he does not return until years later. The number of years past can only be determined by the version of the story with which you are absorbed in. In the novel, Morris does not return until ten years later; whereas, in the film Morris (Montgomery Clift) returns after a short time of only two years later. This is the point that the ending of the story takes its turn.
The novel places us in Washington Square, and a man appears in the doorway of the Sloper house: plump, bearded and balding. It is Morris, now forty-five years old. He has returned from his "travels" that he first set out on ten years ago. Catherine can barely look at him as she recollects how he had walked out on her all those years ago. But if only he could explain himself--Morris pleads to Catherine. However, Catherine remains strong. She is very cold to Morris and wants absolutely nothing to do with him. She reminds him that he has treated her badly. Morris wonders, though, why Catherine has never married, and he pleads for at least her friendship. She refuses to speak with him and turns away from him asking him to leave. It is then that his previous connection to Catherine supports his realization of her feelings towards him. He deeply senses that Catherine really does not care anything for him--nothing at all. Morris, with his head hung down, walks out of the house never to return again. And the novel ends with Catherine tending to her embroidery, the only other life she has ever really tended to.
The film, on the other hand, has a more deceptive ending. The characters, too, take on a different attitude and we see just how Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) plays on Morris. Morris has been gone for two years and appears in the doorway of the Sloper house to ask for Catherine's friendship and is delighted in the fact that she has never married. He is yet a young man and still carries his thin figure, and his only feature that has changed is the appearance of a mustache. Catherine is still furious that Morris had abandoned her two years earlier; however, she patiently listens to his explanations and his assurance to her of having always loved her. Suddenly, Catherine realizes that in her previous love to him he had only wanted the money she inherited, and now he has returned actually for her love. How dare he play her for a fool? So, Catherine sets him up just as he set her up the few short years before.
She agrees to marry Morris for the second time. Morris gleams almost in glory. He is a weasel, a sneaky man, trying to find his way back into Catherine's life. He had left to make better himself, but he comes back with no more money or increased status than that which he had before. Catherine goes to her room and retrieves the wedding present she had planned to give him years ago, the set of ruby and pearl buttons, and asks him to wear them for their wedding to be held that evening. The buttons "suited Morris very well"--the value of them, the beauty, and luxury he sought after. But after he leaves to prepare the couple's voyage to marry, Catherine goes back to her embroidery. She realizes "his lies and silly phrases" and then concludes that "he has come to the wrong house, and he has come twice; he shall not come a third time." Catherine has been very deceiving up to the moment in which Morris rushes off, frantically packing his things for his marriage, just as Catherine did two years earlier. Upon his return, however, Morris finds the door shut and bolted. He begins pounding on the door, calling out after Catherine--pleading (so very weak of a man to do). Catherine ignores him and leaves him there, again, as he had left her. We see Catherine stride up the stairs inside the house. Morris, still pounding outside, watches the lighting become dimmer as Catherine ascends the stairs. We can only gather that such treatment serves him (Morris) right.
Both versions of the story portray the same conclusive idea, but the novel handles the situation more gently than the film. The film takes everything for what it is worth and teaches the man a lesson in reaction to the way that man has treated a woman. The darkening of the lighting, Catherine's ignoring Morris, and his pounding on the door allow us, as viewers, to leave the scene with some gratitude for a woman holding on to her own, seeing through the lies, and letting go of someone who could never treat her right. However, in the novel, Catherine merely tells Morris to leave. On Morris' own accord, it is decided that he should never return. We do not gather from the novel whether or not Catherine still has affection for Morris, although he senses that she does not; but from the film we definitely know she is finished with Morris. In the film, Morris does not see through Catherine as in the novel (that she really despises him); and, although she is finished with Morris, Catherine is able to appeal to him and make him regret leaving the girl he could have had, thus leading to the more dramatic ending of the film (the pounding on the door). It is then that we understand just how easy it can be to fall into a love that is so deceiving (Morris falling for Catherine), for Catherine once fell into Morris' arms in a love that was just as deceiving.