Was Catherine’s Aunt Sincere?

         The Heiress, directed by William Wyler in 1949, is a movie version of the book called Washington Square, written by Henry James in 1880. It tells a story of a young lady name Catherine Sloper, played by Olivia de Havilland, who is being courted by a young man named Morris Townsend, portrayed by Montgomery Clift. Catherine fall in love with him; but her father, Dr. Sloper, depicted by Ralph Richardson, denies them their relationship by threatening to disinherit her. The interesting thing about the movie was the fact that her Aunt Lavinia Pennimen, acted by Miriam Hopkins, pushed for the match between them. The question that comes to mind is was Aunt Pennimen trying to be helpful to Catherine, or was she trying to live through her?

         Is seems likely that Aunt Pennimen, supposedly Catherine’s chaperone, was trying to relive her life through Catherine since her charming minister husband had died young. It is clear that Aunt Pennimen is forcing her hand too much with Catherine and Morris’ courtship. An example of this is that she would push Catherine and Morris together as much as possible with no chaperone present. In today’s society it would not mean anything, but back then it would mean Catherine’s reputation would be in shambles if the situation ever became public knowledge.

         An example of Aunt Pennimen helping the courtship along happens when Dr. Sloper and Catherine leave for Europe. She continually invites Morris over, even though, Dr. Sloper does not want him near the house. This is to help encourage him that the match is still open.

         Another good example is at the end of the movie, when Aunt Pennimen came home to tell Catherine that Morris had returned and planned on seeing her again. She was really excited and thought that Catherine would be happy to see him and accept his offer of marriage. In actuality, she was shocked because Catherine treated him as she had been treated by him when he had not turned up for their planned elopement. This shows that Aunt Pennimen had not really paid much attention to Catherine, overall, because she would have known how Catherine would have acted towards him.

         Throughout the movie, there is many times that the aunt pushes Catherine to do things that she normally would not do. Now to answer the question is to say that both possibilities are right. It is my belief that Aunt Pennimen lived more through Catherine than the older woman realized because of the fact that she did not really see the real Catherine. She did care for her; but Aunt Pennimen was a flirt with the men at a younger age and wanted Catherine, in a sense, to be just like her. No doubt Aunt Pennimen also wanted Morris to stay around because she wanted to keep flirting with him.

Michelle Maden

Table of Contents