What's a Girl to Do?

     In 1880, Henry James wrote Washington Square, the story of a young woman coming of age and finding what she believes is love. In 1949, William Wyler directed The Heiress, a film he adapted from the 1948 Broadway play directed by Ruth and Augustus Goetz based on James's original novel. Throughout each production of this work, one thing remains constant--the lead Catherine Sloper's confusion over the influences in her life.

     In the film, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) resides with her father Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson) and her Aunt Penniman (Miriam Hopkins). During the course of the film, the two extraneous forces these people represent have both positive and negative effects on the fate of Catherine.

     Dr. Sloper can be viewed as a negative influence on Catherine's personality. From the moment his wife dies after giving birth to Catherine the Doctor has a condescending view of his daughter. Over time, his inner thoughts form into verbal abuse that pushes his daughter into a feeling of inferiority. The Doctor cannot possibly imagine his Catherine ever being anything of consequence, and eventually this idea seeps into Catherine's being as well. At the time of Catherine's and Morris' (Montgomery Clift) meeting, the Doctor does not even accommodate the thought that Morris might be interested in his daughter for honest reasons, and he refuses his influence to try to persuade Catherine that Morris only wants the family's money. Catherine has always listened to her father, and this external conflict between her and her father creates and even larger conflict within herself.

     Not to be outdone, Aunt Penniman adds more spice to the recipe by providing Catherine with a romanticist's view of the situation, something that Catherine is quite foreign to. While Dr. Sloper wears down Catherine's pride with his snide remarks, Aunt Penniman builds her up by painting pictures in Catherine's mind of a fairy tale romance with Morris. The meddlesome aunt puts the young suitor onto a pedestal and tries to convince the troubled girl to follow her heart and to defy her father; thus the conflict widens.

     Both characters have an effect on Catherine's decision to elope with Morris, with Aunt Penniman grasping the victory for convincing Catherine to go, but Catherine's pain is caused by a combination of the two. Dr. Sloper's constant criticism of his daughter most certainly contributes to her unhappiness, and unhappiness is not an attractive quality in a person. If Catherine had been able to build up a self-esteem, perhaps Morris would not have forced the boy to leave. At the same time, Catherine's aunt probably knew that Morris was only there for one thing, yet she filled Catherine's head with thoughts of grandeur and set her up for a fall that would be hard to recover from.

     The intricate weave of influence and emotion in The Heiress is an element most becoming to this story line. In the end, however, as Catherine marches up the stairs with a frantic Morris at the front door it is evident that the only influence she had ever needed is the one she possess within herself.

Rachel Dixon

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