Eliza Doolittle and Catherine Sloper: Tragic Heroines?

     Eliza Doolittle and Catherine Sloper are two of the most important characters in their respective books, Pygmalion, written in 1913 by George Bernard Shaw, and Washington Square, written in 1880 by Henry James. In both circumstances, the women suffer somewhat at the hands of men, but the movie versions of each book allow the viewer to consider the women tragic heroines. Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard directed the 1938 version of the film Pygmalion, and William Wyler directed The Heiress in 1949.

     Catherine gets stood up by Morris and is literally heartbroken. She not only loved Morris dearly, but she also was willing to give part of her inheritance up, since her father had threatened to give it to charity. Dr. Sloper did not think highly of Morris, but his daughter was in love and did not care what he thought. In the book, James leaves Catherine as a shallow, heartbroken woman after her father, as played by Ralph Richardson, dies and Morris, as depicted by Montgomery Clift, leaves her. But William Wyler allows a new idea to transform Catherine, as portrayed by Olivia de Havilland, from a lonely and weak woman to a heartbroken woman who gets revenge. She tells her father off and figures out that he does not love her because she cannot live up to his expectations. All he wants is her mother back. Then when Morris comes to take her away, Catherine leaves him knocking on the door and gives him a taste of what she had been through.

     In Pygmalion, Eliza trusts herself with the teachings of Professor Higgins. He works her day and night trying to get her to sound like a lady. But never does he seem to care about how she is feeling or how she has turned to look upon Higgins and Pickering as her family. Shaw's play allows the reader to finish the book, thinking Eliza has grown into a nice young and proper lady. It also tends to point to the idea that she can make it on her own and does not need to stay under the cruelty that Higgins seems to inflict upon her. In the movie, however, Eliza comes back to Higgins, and it seems she is submitting to the idea that she cannot make it on her own. This can be viewed as a weakness in Eliza, where the book shows her strength as a woman on her own.

     Eliza and Catherine both are hurt and treated badly by men. In some versions of the story, like the movie The Heiress or like Shaw's play Pygmalion, these women are portrayed as heroines.

Tim Alsobrooks

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