Washington Square: A Dysfunctional Father-Daughter Relationship

     I can honestly say that I am truly the black sheep of my family. It is true. Whereas almost every other member of my family works in the medical or business fields, I was the strange one, the one involved in all of that acting nonsense. Eventually, my hobby turned out to benefit me in ways I never knew possible. My involvement with forensics in high school and my decision to return to my high school to help coach high school students in forensics has led me to my calling; because of all of that theatre nonsense, I realized that I was destined to be a teacher. If I had listened to my family, I might very well be a nurse or trying to start my own business, and miserable. Instead, I am following my own way, and I have never felt more successful and happy.

     I believe that the character of Catherine Sloper, found in Henry James's 1880 work Washington Square, is in a similar situation. Catherine may not have been the black sheep of her family, but she certainly was looked down upon. Catherine was constantly looking to her father for approval that she would never receive, because in Dr. Sloper's eyes, Catherine would never be her mother.

     Both James's Washington Square and its counterpart 1948 play, written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, and 1949 film The Heiress, directed by William Wyler, are well-written and captivating. However, both the film and the play differ from the novel in many ways. I believe that the most poignant of these differences is the relationship between Catherine and Dr. Sloper.

     In Washington Square the reader is knowledgeable from the moment that Catherine is born that she will never meet her father's expectations. First of all, she was a girl, and Dr. Sloper was hoping for a boy. Secondly, Catherine's mother died as a result of complications with the pregnancy someone that Dr. Sloper could not bear was to lose, his beautiful wife--and from that moment he begins to blame his daughter for her mother's death.

     Through James's writing one can begin to see Catherine in the same light that her father does. Not only does one get a sense of how mistreated Catherine is, he can begin to understand Dr. Sloper's reasoning for why he feels his daughter is such a mistake. Catherine's father believes that a young woman should be well educated, well mannered, well spoken, cheerful, cultured, and beautiful. In his mind, Catherine meets none of these requirements. These reasons are focused upon more throughout Washington Square than The Heiress, where the focus is that Catherine will never be like her mother.

     After Dr. Sloper's death, Catherine remains the same mild-mannered, quiet recluse. Not only has she lost Morris, she has lost her father, and it appears that she will spend out her days with Mrs. Penniman in her father s home. Catherine's confrontation with Morris occurs when she is much older and what I believe to be wiser in the time that she has had to think about her past, and her relationship with her father and Morris. When Catherine addresses Morris upon his return, she is very calm and matter-of-fact with him when she explains that she no longer wishes to see him. There is no manipulation or cruelty involved.

     In contrast, the play The Heiress and the film of the same name, directed by William Wyler in 1949, depict a very different Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) upon her father's (Ralph Richardson) death. In The Heiress we witness the personality change that overcomes Catherine after her father's death. It is almost as if Dr. Sloper's death sets Catherine free from prison of unworthiness. The reader sees Catherine almost literally blossom from a terrified, shy little girl (even though she was an adult), into a refined, confident and mature woman. As a result of this miraculous change, Catherine is ready to deal with Morris (Montgomery Clift) in a calculating fashion when he returns a couple of years later to explain his actions and beg her forgiveness.

     I believe that Catherine confronts Morris in such a different way as compared to the film/play because in James's novel several more years have passed since he left her. Her anger and determination in the film and play to get him back seemed like something that someone younger would do and only if that person had just had his heart broken, not if there had been time to think about the relationship and why it went wrong.

     I feel that both the play and film were excellent in maintaining James's original ideas and characterization. The play kept my attention, and the film and actors Olivia de Havilland (Catherine) and Montgomery Clift (Morris) both had the screen presence and characterization that brought to life the images I had created in my mind of what Catherine and Morris were.

     I am convinced that the creative changes made in the play and film were much more powerful than the novel and were appropriate. It is important for the audience to witness Catherine change and become the person that she has always tried to be.

     There is a little bit of Catherine in all of us; we are all afraid that we are not well spoken, well read, beautiful, or handsome enough, even though we are and are just unable to see ourselves. We can only see ourselves the way others perceive us; and, throughout Catherine's life, her father has always perceived her as a mistake. There is no way one can ever believe that he is good enough if he is constantly treated as if he is not. Catherine's character reaches everyone in a different way. However, in The Heiress, Catherine proved everyone wrong and became the person that she (and her father) never believed she could.

Erica Hulse

Table of Contents