There is a proverb that says: "A man reaps what he sows." This is the proverb that Doctor Sloper should have followed in raising his daughter Catherine in Henry James's 1880 novel, Washington Square, filmed by William Wyler in 1949 as The Heiress.
Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) is a highly respected doctor, and a widower. The first seed sown is disappointment that his daughter (Olivia de Havilland) has not turned out to be beautiful and charming like her mother. Through his medical practice, the doctor has learned it is necessary to explain medical problems on the patient's level of understanding and that the patient feels cheated if he does not have some kind of medicine to help him when the doctor leaves. What the doctor has not learned is not all women are born beautiful and charming. Women become that way by watching and imitating their mothers. Mothers teach their daughters how to dress, converse with others and make the most of their personal strengths. If Doctor Sloper had wanted Catherine to be more like her mother, he should have planted that seed by giving Catherine a woman to emulate.
Catherine Sloper's mother was "amiable, graceful, accomplished and elegant." But she had died when Catherine was a week old. When Catherine was ten, Austin invited his sister, a widow; Lavinia Penniman to live with him and Catherine. For ten years Catherine did not have a close relationship with another woman. In the movie, Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins) shows up when Catherine is fully grown and is invited to spend the winter. There is no evidence of a mother figure to teach little Catherine how to become a woman that would be attractive in the society of the day. By the time she was twelve Dr. Sloper asked his sister to "try and make a clever woman of her." This was his attempt at planting a seed of encouragement. With all his years of observing people, it did not occur to him that he had been teaching Catherine for years, and he had not been teaching her to be a clever woman. Furthermore, the reader finds out that Austin thinks Lavinia is a ninny. Therefore the seed being planted is not how to be clever but how to be foolish.
Another seed Dr. Sloper sowed was to teach Catherine that he was unapproachable. He was an important, busy man. She learned that what she did was never good enough. Another seed sown was the need for industry. Catherine observed that her father was busy, so she learned to be busy. She learned to embroider and to play the piano. Her father, however, sneered at his daughter's attempt to be productive. Her art was not worthwhile. Nothing about Catherine seemed worthy of her father's attentions. He had no expectations for her at all. The problem with having no expectations is that, if you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time. Involved, loving parents teach their children to reach for the moon. They tell them they can do anything they set their minds to do, and encourage them in the areas where they have displayed talent. Poor Catherine had no idea what to aim for, so she did what was expected of her, to sit quietly in the corner and stitch.
Finally, it seems a positive seed is planted. Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) was introduced and wanted to court Catherine. She began to bloom under his attention. But her father quickly wilted her flower by telling her she was not desirable; only her inheritance was worth having. Catherine saw that the father she had worshipped never really loved her. She was willing to leave him and his money behind to become Morris' wife. At this point Catherine finally became interesting to Dr. Sloper because she was stubborn and insisted that Morris was the man for her. Dr. Sloper was shocked to learn she could be so determined. But it turned out her father was right, and Morris left her.
In the end, Catherine believed her father was right, that she was unlovable. In the book, she later turned away men who wanted to marry her for her own virtues. In the movie, she has no other suitors. Catherine grows into the woman her father unthinkingly taught her to be. She became involved in charitable institutions, hospitals and aid societies. These are duties that her father would have thought worthy of his attention. It turned out that Austin Sloper did reap what he had sown.