Mrs. Penniman: Pushy or Helpful?

         The most interesting - and also annoying - character in Henry James's Washington Square and the 1948 play version The Heiress, written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, filmed by William Wyler in 1949, is that of Mrs. Penniman (Miriam Hopkins). Throughout the entire story Mrs. Penniman keeps herself completely immersed in Catherine's (Olivia de Havilland) affairs with Morris (Mongtomery Clift). While it is understandable for a girl to have another girl she can confide in, Mrs. Penniman does not play this role at all.

         She stays involved with the lovers in a very childish way, always telling them what they should say or what they should do. She becomes pushy and obnoxious towards the end of the story. In the novel there is a fantastic line where Morris gets annoyed at Mrs. Penniman's desire to be involved. Mrs. Penniman asks about Dr. Sloper, who is thwarting Morris's marriage plans, "Couldn't you bring a lawsuit against him?"; and Morris replies with, "I will bring a lawsuit against you if you ask me any more such aggravating questions." I love this line because it is probably the most honest line anyone says to Mrs. Penniman about her nuisance in the whole situation.

         Then in the film version of the story, when Catherine is endlessly waiting for Morris to pick her up so they can elope, the viewer can finally begin to feel Catherine's annoyance with her aunt. While there is not a certain line of dialog that brings it out, the viewer can see it in Catherine's facial expressions and her attitude toward her aunt. I feel that it is right of both Morris and Catherine to put Mrs. Penniman in her place.

         Although Mrs. Penniman is this nuisance of a character, it is understandable that Mrs. Penniman acts this way. However, only to an extent should she be allowed to act this way. Just because she has just lost her husband, that does not give her the right to mess with everyone else's lives. She should not be clinging to the thought of having love and drama in her life when it is not her own.

Alichia Sawitoski

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