Pitying Cathy

        Most people would agree that they want their positive qualities to be appreciated. A person might not be good at everything, but most people are good at something, and they want that something to be recognized. It is this drive to be recognized that makes a person recognize and feel bad when someone is not recognized for his or her strong qualities. In Henry James's 1880 novel, Washington Square, one of the main characters, Cathy, has some strong qualities; but her father insists that she is worthless. In Ruth and Augustus Gomez's 1948 play The Heiress, filmed in 1949 by William Wyler, Cathy's father (Ralph Richardson) believes that she is worthless; and, indeed, she seems to show no strong qualities. Readers are more likely to feel sorry for Cathy in Washington Square because of her father's emotional abuse as opposed to Cathy, as played by Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress, whom they feel sorry for because of her lack of recognizable qualities.

        In Washington Square, Cathy is painfully shy. She is a little clumsy, she is not beautiful, she does not like to speak out in public, and she is not witty. Many people might regard her as a social misfit, but it cannot be denied that she also has some worthwhile qualities to be recognized. She plays the piano very well. Though she is clumsy, she does know how to dance. "She was excellently, imperturbably good; affectionate, docile, obedient, and much addicted to speaking the truth" (James 6). Most would agree that, despite her public shyness, these are positive qualities for a woman to have, especially in the time that her story took place. Though she is not a woman who would win any beauty pageants, she cannot be said to be completely worthless.

        Cathy's father does not find her pleasing. She is not beautiful, and she is not clever, and that is what he most wants in his daughter. Those characteristics are the qualities he had most admired in her mother, and he wants to his daughter to have them. When he discovers that those are the qualities that she is lacking, he regards her as useless. He completely ignores the fact that she has other positive qualities and for the rest of her life does not appreciate her worth.

        This aspect of the story is one of the aspects that make the reader feel sorry for Cathy. She has some qualities that are considered admirable for a woman to have, and she desperately wants her father's approval, but he emotionally abuses her. The reader can see that Cathy is worth something, and it is the need for approval that causes the reader to sympathize with and feel sorry for Cathy.

        This is not the case in The Heiress. In The Heiress, Cathy is once again socially inept. She is shy, so much so that, when there are large groups of people around, she tries to retreat to a different room. When she is around large groups of people, she does not have an easy time speaking. She is not clever. She cannot play the piano, and she has much difficulty dancing. She is still good, obedient, and affectionate, but more awkwardly so. She has difficulty even talking to her father. It is much harder to appreciate her good qualities, for it is much harder to identify them.

         Her father dislikes her for her lack of wit, charm, or beauty. As in Washington Square, he misses the qualities that he so admired in his wife. He wished for her to possess them, but she does not, and therefore he does not appreciate whatever quality she has. Cathy in "The Heiress" has a small amount of quality, but it is overshadowed by her awkwardness. Because of this, the reader pities her, not because of her father's emotional abuse and neglect, but because of her lack of quality worth recognizing. The reader feels a personal desire to be recognized; and, when he or she cannot recognize anything worth taking notice of in Cathy, he or she pities her for this.

        In one way or the other Cathy is pitied. In Washington Square she is pitied for her father's emotional abuse. In The Heiress she is pitied for her lack of quality characteristics. If the authors wanted the readers to take notice of Cathy's father's emotional abuse, it was a better choice to give her some good qualities so that she seemed more unfairly disregarded. Without many real, recognizably good qualities, she is just pitied for her lack of them, and her father's abuse seems more warranted and thus gets disregarded.

Adrienne Haley

Table of Contents