Is the Father in?

         The character of Dr. Sloper in the 1880 novel Washington Square, by Henry James, is what I like to call overly obsessed with his work. He has no time to be a father, because he is always playing the doctor role. Everyone he meets he observes, and he develops an opinion of the person. We never really see him be a loving father or brother to his daughter, Catherine, or his sisters, Lavinia or Mrs. Almond. The 1949 movie The Heiress, based on James's novel Washington Square, pretty much goes by the book; but the movie lets Dr. Sloper show and feel more emotion as a father and brother then the book does. The movie, directed by William Wyler, is better than the book because Mr. Wyler made it a bit more entraining then James's book. Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson) is made out to be a highly respected doctor in both the book and the movie, but the movie also shows that he is human and not some villain to his daughter (Olivia de Havilland).

         In the book Catherine really never does have a true father. He has always looked down on her as not amounting much to anything because she is dull, shy, and not clever, but she is rich. That is Dr. Sloper's professional opinion of her. Catherine also has to deal with the fact that she will never live up to the image of her long dead mother that her father holds of her. Dr. Sloper does, however, send Catherine to all the best schools and tries new things so she can have some talents, but it is also a way to keep her away from him. Deep down inside we know that Dr. Sloper holds a grudge against his daughter because she is the reason for his wife being dead. So Dr. Sloper dives headfirst into his work as a way to cover up his feelings and not have to be a true father, so he could send her off to good schools.

         In the movie version Dr. Sloper is a bit more of a father than all doctor. He cares some for his daughter and enjoys seeing and talking to her some. In the movie Dr. Sloper gives Catherine a compliment on her needlepoint and also talks with her about her meeting at the hospital. He seems somewhat interested in Catherine's life. Also in the movie he seems to look after Catherine more than in the book. For example at the engagement party he follows her and takes her cup for her so she can dance with Morris (Montgomery Clift).

         In both the movie and the book Dr. Sloper is still more self-centered than concerned with his daughter. He will give all his money to the clinic if Catherine marries Morris. He always has to be right about everything or make it come true to what he believes. He does not want his daughter to be happy because he is not happy; he lost his love, so should she. In the book we see more of this hatred or meanness of Dr. Sloper's than in the movie.

         In the end Catherine does not let her father win totally. She tells him that she will never give up Morris just to piss off her father. She still loved Morris, although she would never be with him; but she would not tell her father that because then he would be right, and she did not want that. The movie made Dr. Sloper a more tolerable man and father then the book did. He played the doctor but also the father partly. It should show how people could blame others for things that happen when they have no control over at all. I think both the movie and the book captured Dr. Sloper's true side, being a doctor and not the father.

Crystal Newsom

Table of Contents