Lavinia and Austin: Family Feud?

         While Lavinia and Austin may have been siblings in Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, they certainly did not possess the same outlook on life. This continued in the William Wyler's 1949 movie, The Heiress. Their vastly different personalities and values accounted for their opposition. This contention came to a head over Morris Townsend, played by Montgomery Clift. Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins) fearlessly promoted his suit, while Austin Sloper (Ralph Richarson) did everything in his power to drive Morris away. Most of the book recounted the efforts Lavinia and Austin made in order to convince Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) of their point of view. In the end, Catherine chose neither option.

         From the very beginning, Austin and Lavinia exhibited different personalities. Austin was logical, practical, and often harsh. Lavinia was on the opposite end of the spectrum. She was an incurable romantic who insisted on meddling in the affairs of others. They had vastly different outlooks on life and opinions of how to live. These diametrically opposed viewpoints led to a loathing of each other. These different world views were most evident concerning the romance of Morris and Catherine. While Austin dutifully cared for his widowed sister, he vehemently disagreed with her opinions of Morris. This appears to be a case of sibling rivalry carried to a destructive extreme.

         Throughout the book, Lavinia and Austin treated Catherine and Morris as pieces in a chess game. Each move by Lavinia was quickly countered by Austin and vice versa. When Austin elaborated on his disapproval of Morris to Catherine, Lavinia encourage Morris to press his suit. While Austin and Catherine were traveling abroad, Lavinia allowed Morris free reign over the house on Washington Square. Austin dragged Catherine off to Europe in an attempt to make her forget about Morris. From all appearances, Austin and Lavinia played a vicious game of chess, using Morris and Catherine as pawns.

         Even though they shared the same blood, Lavinia and Austin viewed life through vastly different lenses. These opposing viewpoints of the world were made manifest when Morris and Catherine fell in love. Austin and Lavinia attempted to manipulate the young lovers and coerce a decision from them. In the end, neither of the won; a stalemate resulted when Catherine refused to take sides.

Rebekah Ruppel

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