How Do You Measure a Father's Love?

     When I first saw The Heiress, William Wyler's 1949 screen adaptation of Henry James's 1880 novel Washington Square, I did not see much of a change between the characterization of Dr. Sloper (played by Ralph Richardson) and the one that Henry James created in his novel. After some careful consideration, I realized there are some major differences in the way these changes can be viewed. This paper will discuss some of the reasons why I believe William Wyler's Dr. Sloper was not as cruel and heartless as the one portrayed in James's novel.

     When Catherine (Olivia De Havilland) shows her father her cherry red dress, she makes a point of reminding him that her mother used to wear that color. Without realizing it, Catherine has just compared herself to her mother. Granted, Dr. Sloper is clinging too strongly to his late wife's memory; but his remark about how his wife had dominated the color and Catherine did not, may have been his way of retaliating to an old wound. Many of us have lost someone we love, through death or other circumstances. To her father, wearing a color because her mother looked good in it, could be mistaken as a superficial and cruel way to say to someone--I can take that person's place. From experience many of us know that no one wants to be told that one will make new friends when one's best friend moves away; or that buying a new dog will replace the pain of losing the dog one had. Dr. Sloper may not seem to be very kind to his daughter, but he is human. He may not have truly dealt with his grief all these years; Catherine probably has not either. She does not have the same talents that her mother had, she may be trying to compensate for that by trying to look like her mother.

     In Washington Square and The Heiress, Dr. Sloper threatens to disinherit Catherine if she marries Morris Townsend. In the latter one, when he is close to his death, he reveals to her that he never intended to disinherit her. It was merely a test to see if Morris (Montgomery Clift) was after her money. It was a cruel test in Catherine's eyes, but at least she realized he was after her money before she eloped with him.

     Another aspect of Dr. Sloper's character is revealed when he is talking to Morris and telling him how he feels about him marrying Catherine. He remarks that he would rather see her "miserable" and living with him than marrying Morris and being miserable for the rest of her life. This leads one to believe that Dr. Sloper is aware that he does not "communicate" very well with his daughter and can be too harsh at times; yet he knows that his love for his daughter is not matched or exceeded by Morris' supposed love of her.

     Even when he is dying, Dr. Sloper does not apologize to his daughter for the cruel things he has said in the past; but one can tell he does love her, for he had said he would never disinherit her, even though she might marry Morris after he has died. Catherine is naive because she never had a mother to talk to, and women tend to be better at dealing with more emotionally charged situations. I believe part of the reason Dr. Sloper dwells on the memory of his late wife so much during this story is that he feels Catherine's mother would be better able to help her see what Morris is trying to do to her. Sometimes when fathers care the most, they try so hard to find the right words to say, that the words come out horribly wrong. Such was the case when he was trying to tell her to be careful of men whose first priority could be getting their hands on her money. Unfortunately, these are usually the times when daughters need their father's emotional support the most. I know this to be true from personal experience; I also know that time can be the best teacher and healer when a father's love appears to be anything but love.

Lisa Manners

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