Catherine Sloper: Victim or Heroine

     One of the most interesting differences between Henry James's 1880 novel, Washington Square, and its 1949 film version, The Heiress, directed by William Wyler, is the way each one of them portrays Catherine Sloper. In the novel, Catherine is left lonely and sad; she chooses not to give Morris the light of day and rightfully so. Wyler however plays with James's version a little and makes the audience think that Catherine has forgiven Morris and is ready to take him back. As we later find out though, it was her way of getting back at him; and, even though she was lonely, she could be seen as the heroine.

     James's idea of Catherine relates to a weak, lost soul. Her father ridicules her and always belittles her since she will never match her mother's beauty and abilities. He controls her life until seemingly the very end, when she decides to run away with Morris. Then Morris turns his back on her, leaving Catherine a lost, worried soul. She never seems to free herself from her father or the love she had for Morris. At the end of the book, the reader knows definitely that Catherine will die lonely and never love again.

     Wyler, however, gives another insight into the story. Just as James does, Wyler shows how at the beginning Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) is lost and scared to offend her father. But as the story goes on, she sees the way her father (Ralph Richardson) really is and that he never really loved her at all. The scene where see finally decides to tell him off is excellently done, and one can see by the light in her face and her tone of voice that Catherine is no longer afraid.

     The same stuff happens with Morris (Montgomery Clift) leaving her, but the ending is much different and better than James's ending. Catherine decides to take him back; and, when Morris comes knocking on the door, she makes everyone go away and says she will get it. She comes to the door, and in her eyes one omit can see the pain that is going through her as she turns and walks away. The last scene, as Catherine starts up the stairs, is meant by Wyler to be foreshadowing. In another scene, she had gone up the stairs in the same way, the night Morris had left her. That time she turned and looked back with tears in her eyes, on the second occasion she did not hesitate at all but kept going. Wyler did an excellent job of giving Catherine the ideal of being a heroine.

     These two versions of Catherine Sloper are very different. James's idea was to make her seem defeated, while Wyler seemed to give her the last victory in a world of hell. Wyler seemed to do the same thing in Wuthering Heights by making Ellen feel more homely and caring than Brontė did in the book. Wyler's actions add a twist to his movie versions that most fans like better.

Tim C. Alsobrooks

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