Catherine, Shy or Pitiful

         While watching the movies Washington Square, directed in 1997 by Angieszka Holland, and The Heiress, directed in 1949 by William Wyler, both based on Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, I noticed some differences in emotion, Catherine's background, and her relationship with Morris. Catherine in the later movie is more pitiful than she is in the earlier one.

         In the beginning of Holland's Washington Square, Catherine (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is seen at a younger age. The viewer can bond easier with a child. The young Catherine is shown running to meet her father, Dr. Sloper (Albert Finney), at the front door when he comes home. She is overweight, and clingy. She needs love and assurance. She does not really get it from her father, which sends out her depressing emotion of a very shy, pitiful girl.

         In the beginning of Wyler's The Heiress, Catherine is seen as a grown woman. Her father (Ralph Richardson) is still not giving her the love she needs, but the viewer does not get as emotional about his ill treatment of her because Catherine is portrayed by Olivia de Havilland as an adult. She is seen waiting up for her father on several occasions but not necessarily running for the door every day. The viewer does not think of her in such a pitiful way as the viewer does of the young, much shyer girl in Washington Square.

         Catherine in Washington Square does not talk much unless it is answering a question. In The Heiress, Catherine is not as shy. She is sarcastic with her Aunt Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins) and tells her funny stories. Catherine is accepted as an equal by her. It seems that she is only outgoing and is herself around people that do not demean her. This is especially apparent in The Heiress.

         In both Washington Square and The Heiress, Catherine is swept off her feet by Morris (Ben Chaplin and Montgomery Clift). Both movies portray her as upset and waiting for him to come home from his job, then realizing he is not coming back any time soon. In both films, Catherine seemed to mature a great deal while courting Morris. She started dressing differently, and did not overly worry about what her father thought of her. Catherine realizes that her father does not really love her because she does not measure up to her mother.

         In Washington Square, the meeker Catherine is not as cruel as her counterpart in The Heiress. Like Henry James's Catherine, she simply tells the older Morris that he has hurt her too much for them to be together. She seems more at ease with her life as it is, and happier. On the contrary, in The Heiress, Morris comes back sooner when Catherine is still young. She is cruel to him when she realizes once again, that he is just using her. She tells him that she would marry him and then does not answer the bolted door when he arrives. The movie shows the light from Catherine's torch disappearing up the stairs, along with her, symbolizing that she is leaving him. He knows that he has been rejected, and he is the one standing there hurting, and pounding on the door as Catherine has been doing all along in a non-traditional way.

         Both movies tell the same story, but the Catherine of The Heiress, in my opinion, is less pitiful than the Catherine of the later movie because Wyler's Catherine is not portrayed as a young girl in the beginning as she is in Holland's film of Washington Square.

Lynda Jackson

Table of Contents