Morris Townsend--Guilty as Charged?

     While reading Henry James's 1880 novel,Washington Square, turned into a play, The Heiress, by Ruth and Augustus Goetz in 1948 and into a film, directed by William Wyler in 1949, I found that the character of Morris Townsend was portrayed as rather a villain. I came to wonder if he was, in actuality, a villain. It seems to me Morris is less of a villain in the play and movie, as depicted by Montgomery Clift, than he is in the book to Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland).

     In Washington Square and in the two versions of The Heiress, Morris Townsend is a poor man who tries to win the love of a wealthy woman by the name of Catherine Sloper, whose father is a wealthy doctor. Morris is successful in winning the heart of Catherine; however, Catherine's father disapproves of him. Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson) did not like Morris from the beginning and had tried to distract Catherine from him by taking her to Europe for a year in the book and six months in The Heiress.

     Throughout this novel, play, and movie, there is always the question of whether or not Morris truly loves Catherine, if his motives are honestly for her, and not her huge fortune. Assuming that Morris really loves Catherine is hard to back up and at the same time easy to demonstrate. In a conversation between Morris and Mrs. Penniman, Catherine's aunt, (Miriam Hopkins), they discussed how Dr. Sloper thinks that Morris likes only money. Morris said that, indeed, he liked money. When Mrs. Penniman asked him if he liked money more than Catherine, he diverted her from the question and did not answer it completely. Another instance between Catherine and Morris suggests the same thing. Catherine asked Morris if he loved her, and he in return asked her if she doubted it. He clearly was not up front and did not answer the question.

     Morris Townsend's actions and words suggest that he only wants to marry Catherine for her money. This can be taken in more than one way. After all, Morris never said or gave good reason that he did not love Catherine. He could very well be quite fond of her. Another interpretation is that he does love Catherine but, indeed, needs to marry a rich woman for survival. Morris is a poor man, and he needs a steppingstone for his own success. In this case, Catherine would be perfect for him and his situation.

     Morris Townsend may come off as a money-driven handsome devil that only uses his good looks to attract wealthy women, but he did approach Catherine first. There are plenty of wealthy women who would love to marry a handsome man. I think that in approaching Catherine, Morris does care for Catherine. Catherine would not be able to pick Morris out of a crowd if he had not taken the liberty to go about introducing himself to her via Marian Almond, who is Catherine's cousin.

     I believe that Morris Townsend was a man with good intentions for Catherine Earnshaw. His appearance, actions, and demeanor just disguised these intentions. This is my case and I am standing by it. Or maybe Morris Townsend is just a handsome devil. The world may never know.


Vanessa Lewis

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