The Trapped Daughter

         In the 1880 novel Washington Square by Henry James and again in the 1948 play The Heiress, by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, directed as a movie in 1949 by William Wyler, Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson), a successful New York physician, has a tremendous amount of power over his daughter, Catherine (Olivia De Havilland). He is an overbearing father who realizes it and exploits the impact he has over his daughter's life. Unfortunately for Catherine, she could never become the idealized vision that her father had for her; and, therefore, she would always be a disappointment to her father. However, instead of breaking away from this unhealthy relationship and starting a new life, Catherine gave into each of her father's wishes even after his death until she became an old maid with only the company of her Aunt Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins).

         At one point, Catherine has a chance to break away from her father. She became engaged to Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) and was ready to start a new life. However, her father was suspicious of Morris's intentions. He knew Morris was only marrying Catherine for her inheritance. Therefore, Dr. Sloper threatened to take his inheritance of $20,000 away if Catherine went off with only her mother's inheritance of $10,000 a year and married Morris. This is the point in the novel where Catherine actually has some power, but for some reason she defers it for approval from her father and heads off to Europe with him. In hindsight, Dr. Sloper was correct. Morris was only in it for the money, and we find this out when he tells her to go to Europe with her father instead of marrying him. Morris stated it in a way that did not hurt Catherine, but it should have been obvious to her at that point that he was only in it for the money. If he were truly in love with her, he would not have been able to stand the time away from her while she was traveling around Europe. Also, he would have been trying to get a good job to impress Dr. Sloper enough so that he would let Morris marry Catherine with his blessing and promised inheritance. However, Catherine was naïve and felt that Morris was looking out for her future instead of his own.

         This is the point in the novel where Catherine should have broken off both relationships. Staying with her father was always a lost cause because she would always be a disappointment to him, and it was obvious that Morris would only marry her if she also had her father's inheritance. Therefore, as hard as it would have been, she should have taken the annual $10,000 from her mother and started a new life. The worst thing that could have happened would for her to be alone at the end of her life, and she ended up alone anyway.

         Maybe Catherine did not realize just how big a disappointment she really was to Dr. Sloper. Richardson certainly portrayed his disappointment for her in The Heiress. Apparently, she was happy enough with the life that was happening around her that she really did not notice that she was not really living at all. She could not have really been human because it seems as though she never really cared if she got what she wanted or not. Maybe she could never decide what she truly wanted and was therefore willing to accept whatever life her father had set up for her, regardless of the outcome.

         It is very hard for a child to break away from an overbearing parent such as Dr. Sloper. However, when it becomes apparent that the child will always be a disappointment, he or she needs to break off the unhealthy relationship, or else suffer the consequences of never really being happy.

Kevin Kraus

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