Washington Square–Fail after Fail

        After reading Henry James’s 1880 novel Washington Square, I felt sorry for the main character Catherine: She had to grow up being belittled and looked down on by her complacent father, Dr. Sloper. For his whole life, he was disappointed that Catherine could not replace his wonderful and clever wife. Furthermore, the sly legacy hunter Morris Townsend tried to take advantage of her, pretending to love her though he was just after her money. This was the impression the novel gave me.

        Again, as in Wuthering Heights, the movie helped me to clarify my vision of the characters, and I changed my opinion about Catherine Sloper. In the 1949 movie adaptation The Heiress, directed by William Wyler, Olivia de Havilland as Catherine was the outstanding figure who made the movie a great one and deserved the academy award she received for this role. First of all, I think that The Heiress is a better title because it tells more than Washington Square. In this movie, the audience can follow Catherine’s life and her development (if you can speak of development).

        During the movie, I got the impression that Catherine’s presence was a chain of subsequent fails: She disappoints her father because she is not so charming and smart as her mother was: The only thing she indulges in is embroidery, a pretty dull and not very challenging activity in my opinion. There are several little moments in the movie in which Catherine’s naivety is displayed: She buys a fish and shows it to her father like a little child, suggesting: “Look, I bought a fish, praise me how smart I am.” Or when she dances with Morris, she treads on his feet all the time. She falls in love with Morris, but she fails to be independent and to cut herself from her father. At the end of the story, when Morris makes his final attempt to get her back, she denies him. Some consider this a sign of strength, but I think it is dumb again: She should have taken him back at this point because she loved him and marrying him would have been a good choice for her.

        This events, accompanied by the very naïve, innocent look that de Havilland as Catherine with her huge, deer-like eyes, gives us all the time, convey the impression of a really dumb woman who keeps making wrong decisions.

Bernhard Holzfurtner