The Mystery Revealed Behind Washington Square

     After watching the film, The Heiress (1949), by director William Wyler, I found that the mystery becomes all too clear. In the book Washington Square (1880), by Henry James, readers are left to wonder just what Morris Townsend's intentions were in pursuing a marriage with the heiress, Catherine Sloper. We indeed have a good idea of the injustice being done to Catherine; but nevertheless, I found myself giving Morris Townsend the benefit of the doubt. Could he possibly be so cruel as to manipulate Catherine Sloper into falling in love and marrying him just so he could live the life of a wealthy man?

     Catherine Sloper is the heiress to a large fortune left to her by her father. Catherine is already heir to her mother's money, which is a nice figure of $10,000 per year. It is known that in those times, $10,000 per year was quite a substantial amount. One could have easily lived comfortably on that amount. This was the first clue behind Morris Townsend's intentions. He was very concerned about her being disinherited if they should marry. One indeed has to ask oneself, "If I were to marry the woman/man I loved and live comfortably on $10,000 per year, why am I complaining?" Almost everyone would probably agree that $30,000 per year would be even better, but why risk one's marriage with this person if one is already going to have enough money to live the good life? True intentions--I think not.

     The heart-breaking scene in the movie where Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is waiting for her true love to steal her away so they can elope is another clue. I feel that Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) flees because Catherine pressures him into eloping that very evening. When he agreed to meet her that evening so that they could marry, the only thing he could see was the inheritance being lost. Why else would he disappear? Morris tries to convince Catherine that he left because he did not want to destroy the relationship she has with her father (Ralph Richardson). That indeed contradicts his strategy to claim Catherine's dowry. Morris knows that Dr. Sloper will never accept a marriage between them. Why else would Morris concern himself with their relationship? Simple, he intends on keeping Catherine at bay until her father's death.

     The biggest revelation of all was after Dr. Sloper's death. Morris Townsend conveniently reappears at Washington Square after a few years in the movie in contrast to the many years in the book. Unchanged in his endeavor, he uses his charm and wit to try and win back the affections of Catherine. Believing that she has succumbed to his lies, he walks around the house proclaiming how he is finally home. Luckily we see that Catherine has become all too aware of his plan. Catherine rightfully discards him in the same fashion as she was discarded years before.

     After watching The Heiress, I felt a great deal of respect for Catherine Sloper. Having been betrayed her entire life by not only Morris Townsend but also her father, she comes out on top. She gains the self-worth that she had always lacked. She stood up for herself and stopped the cruel game that Morris Townsend was playing. At some points in this film, one wavers on whether or not Morris is being sincere or being untruthful. By analyzing certain parts of the film, I could clearly see just what was going on. The phrase that comes to mind as the film closed is: "What goes around, comes around."

Jamie Steffy

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