Catherine, the Heroine

         Unfortunately, the cliché saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is far from the truth. In fact, one negative comment can hinder an entire life. Psychologist Robert K. Merton discussed this very issue in his book Social Theory and Social Structure: “The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behaviour, which makes the original false conception come 'true'. This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning” (477).

         In The Heiress, directed in 1949 by William Wyler and based on Washington Square, written in 1880 by Henry James, Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson) holds a “false definition” that his daughter, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland), lacks everything the immortalized version of his late wife embodies: poise, wit, brilliance, talent, and beauty. Catherine, perceiving her father’s judgment to be truth, preserves and believes this skewed image of herself. Therefore, as the prophecy states, she evolves into the banal daughter her dad sees, making the “original false conception come ‘true’."

         Then, this cycle allows Dr. Sloper to hold control over Catherine in a very authoritative way, and she remains under his jurisdiction submissively. Quivering at his every judgment, Catherine is always seeking his approval. Because of such a degrading profession, she is unable to break the prophecy, for she continues to fall short of his standards.

         This “reign of error” is seen at the beginning of the movie when Catherine first interacts with her father, and the audience immediately sees this power he holds over her: Catherine lacks confidence, is awkward and fumbles over her words. However, his hindrance to her personality is seen even more through his absence. When Catherine talks alone with Aunt Pennimen (Miriam Hopkins), a woman with whom she feels comfort and security, she is quick-witted and bubbly, seeming anything but banal. Therefore, this proves that in order for Catherine to flourish, she must get away from her father.

         Then, this possibility of independence becomes a reality when Morris takes interest in Catherine, for marriage to Morris (Montgomery Clift) is a ticket away from her house. However, through the arrival of Morris, she first truly learns how lowly her father thinks of her. Immediately, he is suspicious of the handsome, charming Mr. Morris being interested in his homely daughter. Why, he believes Mr. Morris must be after her money, for Dr. Sloper thinks of his daughter as “as an unmarriageable girl.” So, Dr. Sloper does everything in his power to “save” her daughter from the money-hungry playboy, even going so far as to taking her to Europe.

         His protection of his daughter seems to be for the good of Catherine, yet he is really doing it for selfish purposes. Catherine has been under his foot her whole life, always seeking his approval permission, and opinions. Catherine’s opinions are her father’s opinions. When the option arrives that he will no longer have a person to rule over, he feels threatened. His fear is justifiable, for even though Morris breaks Catherine’s heart, the tragedy of the situation serves as a catalyst for breaking free of the shackles of her father’s constraint. Finally coming to terms with reality, Catherine speaks back bravely: “Don't be kind to me, father. It doesn't become you.” Catherine realizes how long that her father’s opinions and control have dictated her life, and she wants no more of it. Even after Morris leaves and Dr. Sloper wants her in the will, she refuses to accept his money, rejecting her inheritance of a large sum for reasons of integrity.

         In addition, she finally stands up to her father verbally, not allowing him to cut her down: “ You have found a tongue at last, Catherine. 'Tis only to say such terrible things to me.” Catherine agrees and states, “Yes. This is a field where you will not compare me to my mother.” Catherine’s response reveals her realization of the self-fulfilling prophecy established by the constant comparison to her mother, and because of that realization, she is allowed to finally discontinue “the reign of error.”

         At the end of the movie, post Dr. Sloper’s death and post mourning of Morris, Catherine sits poised, beautiful, and full of confidence. Her calm aura of strength reflects through her eyes, a great contrast to the timid fear of disapproval from her father at the beginning. Her strength allows her to reject and see through Morris as he comes back tired and forlorn, begging for her love again: “Bolt the door, Maria!” After all, Catherine is a lot like the immortalized version of her mother, proving her father to be false.

         Rejecting her inheritance, overcoming the control of her father, and surviving the heartbreak of Morris, Catherine ironically proves to be not only a powerful woman, but also the strongest character in the film. Therefore, the character of Catherine serves as both a heroine and feminist role model in The Heiress.

Work Cited
Merton, Robert. K. Social Theory and Social Structure, Free P, 1968.

Sarah Landolt

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