Girl Problems

         Henry James's 1880 novel Washington Square and the 1949 film adaptation, The Heiress, directed by my favorite William Wyler, may be a tale of deception and deceit, but it is also about a woman who begins as a frightened little girl and finishes as an empowered, if bitter, woman. The story is about Catherine, the daughter of one Dr. Sloper, a prominent physician, and her journey into womanhood. She overcomes her greatest weakness to become her own person.

         Throughout the novel, Catherine is verbally abused by her father, and she is seen by all to be unattractive, uncultured, ignorant, but insanely rich. Catherine is to receive a hearty inheritance from her father once he dies and has already received a comfortable allowance from her deceased mother's inheritance. Soon after the opening of the novel, Catherine begins to be courted by a young man called Morris. Immediately, Dr. Sloper takes a strong dislike to Morris and tells Catherine that Morris is simply after her for her money. Instead of being calm and speaking like a decent human being, Sloper berates Catherine by telling her that no man could love her except for her money. Catherine resents her father and his accusations, claiming that Morris truly loves her. After a threat from her father to limit her inheritance, Morris quickly scampers off to the shadows, leaving Catherine broken-hearted and alone. When Morris comes crawling back years later, Catherine can refuse him and politely tells him to get lost. She will not be his puppet anymore. While she has become a stronger person, she has not become a cruel person. She cares for her father until he dies and simply sends Morris away when he returns with his excuses.

         In the film adaptation, The Heiress, Catherine, portrayed by Olivia de Havilland, is much the same person throughout the story, that is until the end. Instead of being polite to those who have abused and misused her, she becomes a cold-hearted vengeance-hungry bitch (not that this is a bad thing). When the lying Morris, depicted by Montgomery Clift, returns with more of his stories, Catherine knowingly plays along with him, making him believe that she will run away and marry him. But instead, when Morris returns later that evening to collect her, she does not just say "Just kidding"; she has the maid, Maria (Vanessa Brown), lock him out in the rain; and then she goes upstairs smirking and carrying high her torch of triumph. I have to say that I enjoyed the film more than the novel, simply because Catherine has decided that she is not going to lie down for anybody's shit anymore. She finally stands up and asserts: "Guess what? You hurt me, you can kiss my..."

Christopher Reaves

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