Catherine the Great?

     Henry James's Washington Square (1880) was highly regarding mainly for the fact that it had well thought-out characters in it. The paramount character in this story is Catherine, the kind and gentle girl who becomes callous and cruel as she is scorned by both her father and her lover. Yet, however, James appears to be a tough act to follow, for with each itineration of his story, the justification for this cruelty becomes less and less feasible.

     For instance, in the 1947 play The Heiress, written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, the story is changed so that Catherine spites Morris upon his return by pretending to still be in love with him. Then, at the last moment, she tricks him, locking him out. The result of this action is that Catherine sinks down to Morris' level, capable only of despicable treachery.

     Then, in the 1949 William Wyler movie, The Heiress (adapted from the play), Catherine (played by Olivia de Havilland) becomes still more malevolent, this time with her father (Ralph Richardson). While James's novel has Catherine remain kind to her father even unto death, the Goetzs' story has Catherine scorn her father's dying wish to see her once more! Is he really so evil to her that she is not willing to put up with his last request, and allow their differences to go unsettled for eternity?

     Part of the blame for this character erosion can be blamed on the changes created by the Goetzs. For instance, they make Dr. Sloper's judgement of Catherine based on her shyness rather than impudence. This makes Dr. Sloper seem more justified his attempts to demand the best from his daughter, and Catherine less justified for her outright resent of him. As Mrs. Montgomery (Betty Linley) says in both the play and the movie, "I think you expect too much in people, Doctor." Expecting too much in people is hardly a fatal flaw, but disappointing those expectations constantly is outright suicide.

     Morris Townsend (played by Montgomery Clift) too, has had a facelift. Instead of leaving Catherine figuratively and literally, he disappears. This action seems to muddle up these motives for leaving her. Instead of the certainty we once had that he was a gold-digger (even before he left her!), now we are left with an uncertainty that he may have done this all to help Catherine save herself from disinheritance. Once again, the fatal flaw shifts to Catherine when she treats him harshly.

     In short, I find the 'new' empowered Catherine repulsive. Perhaps justice is a virtue, but mercy is a higher virtue. Henry James wrote Catherine to be above mere human retribution: when her father was ill, she cared for him; when Morris returned, she treated him with some dignity and compassion. Unfortunately, his Madonna became their Medusa. The result is something too hideous to sympathize with. Olivia de Havilland is a wonderful actress, but give me the old Catherine any day.

Joseph M. Pence

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