Penniman and Patriarchal Oppression

        In Henry James’s 1880 Washington Square and its 1949 film adaptation, The Heiress, directed by William Wyler, Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is a wealthy young woman with no suitors until she meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) , resident gold-digging charmer. Her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), instantly recognizes Townsend for what he is, and investigates him to prove it, ultimately causing him to withhold his consent for their marriage. This would have been the end of the sordid affair had it not been for the machinations of Catherine’s aunt, the widowed Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins). Mrs. Penniman, hopelessly interfering and addicted to romance, encourages Townsend at every turn to continue his pursuit of Catherine, plotting new tactics with him each time his advances are denied, until Catherine finally defies her father, giving up her inheritance so that she may marry Townsend. Townsend of course, not at all interested in wedding a disinherited Catherine, drops her like a sack of chiggers. Everyone ultimately ends up miserable, bitter, or dead.

        How could this calamity of love have been avoided? There is nothing that could have made Dr Sloper less of a hard-ass, Morris less skuzzy, or Catherine less gullible—these things were symptomatic of their nature and their experience; but what of Mrs. Penniman?

        Though Mrs. Penniman could no more abandon the preoccupation with romance that is so central to her being, than Townsend could just hold down a job and work for a living, there is perhaps an external reason she kept things going so disastrously for so long: options, Penniman did not have any.

        A widow of Penniman’s time was obligated to honor the memory of her husband in life-long chastity. She was not a bad person; she was a romantic—starved of the love that to her was oxygen. The male-dominated culture that seeded the feminine romantic ideal within her robbed her of the ability to express it—as such, it is no great wonder that she devoted herself to vicariously undermining the lives and common sense of other people, sending them merrily to be on the altar of Aphrodite once (through no fault of her own) she was banished from the temple.

        The anguish in this story was not Dr Sloper’s fault; but the blame lies squarely upon what he represents, the thing to which he owes his fortune, reputation, and esteemed position. These characters were destroyed by male privilege, the disease that first ravaged Penniman and then spread through everyone she touched. In a world absent of such pestilence, one can imagine Penniman in the midst of her harem of adoring young men, too preoccupied to meddle with anyone else. One would not be surprised in this world, to know that a silly thing lie marriage had not even occurred to a smart and resourceful girl like Catherine. Here, in the absence of the formative example of mothers sacrificed to their husbands’ mobility, Morris would never have considered using women to be a viable career option. And in such a place, Dr Sloper might have lived out his final days in pride, rather than bitterness, because he would never have been surprised to find that his daughter was much more, instead of less than an extension of his will.

Joan Royalty