Cruel Intentions...or just a Misjudgment?

     In the 1880 novel Washington Square, by Henry James, a character by the name of Morris Townsend plays one of the villains. Many readers profess their hatred for him and his ways upon finishing the story; however, is he really such a villain? Much consideration must be used when concluding with his assumption.

     I was able to see Morris Townsend in three different lights with these being the novel of Washington Square and the 1948 play and 1949 film of The Heiress. I found a remarkable difference between the two.

     Every author and film maker sets out with a goal in mind. All of them want to get something across to the reader or audience. This may be something as simple as the concept of love or hate, or the varying personality traits of one person's journey through life. In my opinion, Henry James, Ruth and Augustus Goetz, and William Wyler were coming from different directions when it came to their feelings on Morris Townsend. Goetz and Wyler were along the same path since Wyler had made his movie from the Goetz play.

     Reading Washington Square made me despise Morris. He comes onto Catherine too quickly and cares nothing of what her father thinks. He pressures her into marrying him as soon as possible and asks Catherine not to care what her father says. He is scared that she will listen to him. After Catherine's departure to Europe, Morris keeps very close quarters with Aunt Penniman. He seems to have no excitement over Catherine and only gives her a message when Aunt Penniman requests one. James give the reader clues that Morris is a villain through things such as him returning to try and marry Catherine once he is broke and unkept from travelling. Morris cares nothing of himself. James indeed portrays his intentions as cruel.

     I received the opposite effect after reading the play and viewing the movie based on the play of The Heiress. It came across to me that the author and film maker saw Morris as a different character. He made me believe him to be more sincere and gentlemanlike. Morris (Montgomery Clift) caters to Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) at their first meeting and does his best to be kind to Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson). Nothing is proven that he is taking Catherine for her money. He talks sweetly to Catherine, and who is to say that he was not being noble by leaving when he found out that Catherine would be disinherited if they married? His sister (Betty Linley) never truly speaks bad of him.

     Catherine is shaken because of Dr. Sloper's interrogations. When Morris returns, he is excited to see Catherine and wants to marry her. He is sad and upset when he is rejected. The actor who plays Morris also made me see him differently. The actor is rather soft spoken and calm. He does not look like a cruel, conniving man. I assume Wyler did this for a reason. He may have also seen Morris as a good man in his heart. If he would have cast Townsend as a large, burly, loud man he would have come across in quite the opposite way.

     In all, Morris Townsend's intentions are a guessing game. Who will ever know if he truly loved Catherine? I believe the story was written so that people could make their own judgement. If a person sees the bad in other people, he or she probably view Morris as a villain. If a person looks for the good in others, he or she may see Morris in a positive light. A film maker and an author know the intentions of their characters and actors. The fun part is guessing what they are. There is no right or wrong.

Andrea Lea Yates

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