The theme of "unaggressive obstinacy" is threaded through two very different novels--Washington Square, written by Henry James in 1880 and filmed in 1949 by William Wyler as The Heiress, and Justine, written by Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) in 1791.
This theme is manifested as a human quality in the main character of each novel. Both protagonists are female and possess a similar penchant for passivity, despite a constant call from the world around them for assertion and self-defense. They are driven thus by a need to serve their fathers--Dr. Sloper in Washington Square and God the Father in Justine.
In Washington Square and The Heiress, set in the 1840s, we follow the story of Catherine (Olivia de Havilland), a lady of wealth on the verge of marriage. Though she wants very badly to accept her suitor Morris' (Montgomery Clift) proposal, her father vainly attempts to inhibit her from marrying. He calls her names, accuses her of having no charming qualities, and generally treats her like a waste of space. Her attitude towards him could not be more contrary--she honors his every move. "Even in the upmost bitterness she should feel it would give her no satisfaction to think him less complete."
Justine of de Sade's work equally regards her Father with unadulterated endorsement. She recounts, after receiving more than one blow from outside forces, "I forgot my sufferings instantly. I swore to behave myself well." Unfortunately, her circumstances are considerably harder. She is homeless and poverty-stricken in very savage eighteenth-century France. Very few of those she encounters offer her anything but pain and adversity.
Although the secondary characters of Washington Square tend to be kinder, they share the drive to suggest reform of the women's dutiful attitudes. Justine is warned by one of her countless oppressors: "…those who feel they are stronger have no need to give up anything into order to be happy, and those who find themselves the weaker also find themselves giving up infinitely more than what is assured them."
In Washington Square and The Heiress, Catherine is pressed by her Aunt Penniman (Miriam Hopkins) to take a stand against her father more times than one. Both Justine and Catherine initially remain faithful to their convictions, much to their misery. Finally, Catherine allows a change. Catherine decidedly grows weary of her father's disrespect and proclaims, "I have been as good as I could, but he doesn't care. Now I don't care either. "At the end of the novel, we see that she is awarded with the freedom of becoming an old maid, liberated from any man whose aim was to control her.
Justine does not make such progress. Though tormented by more repressive forces, with severer treatments, she remains true to what she believes her Lord wants. This means refraining from choosing crime as an answer to her destitution, although it is proven countless times, in every way, that this would be her only chance at security. De Sade introduces her with the words: "…she preferred death to ignominy." Consequently, she is struck by lightning at the close of the novel.
These stories favor Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest. The protagonists live in settings where the strong double their pleasure, and the weak increase their pain. Presented by the authors, though they lived in vastly different time periods and wrote for divergent reasons, is the same implication--the weak will fail.