Is a Piano Just a Piano?

     In William Wyler's 1949 film of Ruth and Augustus Goetz's 1948 play, The Heiress, based on Henry James's novel, Washington Square, the piano seems to play a larger role than most viewers might notice. It appeared to me, while I was watching the film, that the piano could be seen in many important and crucial moments of Catherine's (Olivia de Havilland) life. It was present when Catherine was growing up, for she learned to play the piano; and, probably as most children do, she spent hours of dedication and discipline on perfecting her skill. This was also a time when Catherine was first introduced to the rough, unfair life she was going to live. Also, the piano is present in the background when Catherine goes through the turmoil of leaving Morris (Montgomery Clift) in the end. It has come to my conclusion that it is no mistake that the piano was quite possibly a character of its own.

     As anyone who has tried to learn to play an instrument knows, it takes hours, days even years to perfect the skill, the talent. One must have dedication and self-discipline, and the inner strength to keep going even when it seems useless. That was just how it was for Catherine while growing up.

     Taking the grief from her father (Ralph Richardson) because she was not beautiful and perfect took a whole lot of guts and strength to even attempt to fall in love with someone and trust that that person loved her. That person was Morris. And just as people practice an instrument, such as the piano, Catherine practiced a relationship with someone who tried her nerves and strength.

     In the end, however, we see that Catherine's practice paid off. Like a hard-working pianist, Catherine broke free of Morris, leaving him behind in her dust as she ascended the stairs; as she ascended into her life, free of the weight of someone holding her down. And like a musician, Catherine's greatest masterpiece was finding herself and grasping her strength to be who she wanted to be. In my opinion, not only did the piano symbolize strength, dedication, and life, but also it symbolized Catherine.

Barbara Kern

Table of Contents