Uncelebrated Differences

        People often identify “cute couples” and mother-daughter relationships through similarities. “She has her mother’s warmth,” or “those two are such good looking people.” It is unconventional for a daughter to lack resemblance to her mother, or a man to desire a woman less beautiful and intelligent than he. For Dr. Sloper in Washington Square (1880), by Henry James, and filmed in 1949 as The Heiress by William Wyler, these situations are more than unconventional. These situations cause him to deem his daughter as inadequate through her contrast with her mother, and his potential son and law to be ill-intended because he is interested in this “inadequate” daughter. Specifically, Henry James and the film makers make Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) foil to her mother and to her lover, Morris (Montgomery Clift) to create irony and give meaning to Dr. Sloper’s (Ralph Richardson) attitudes towards both his daughter and Mr. Townsend.

        The ironic situation of Catherine being the opposite of her mother causes Dr. Sloper to resent his daughter. The reader of the book but not the viewer of the movie can see that the doctor had resented Catherine at birth because he had lost his desired son and beloved wife, and is only left with Catherine. His resentment is furthered in the fact that Catherine contrasts with her mother by being a “very robust and healthy child”(3), as opposed to having the delicate condition of her mother. And unlike her mother, “one of the pretty girls of . . . the capital. . . “(2), Catherine is “without a trace of her mother’s beauty” (6). Catherine also lacks the charm and wit of her mother, which is shown through her often short and oblivious comments, such as when her father asks for Mr. Townsend’s name and she sheepishly replies that she does not know, even though the two recently met. The irony is that Catherine and her mother both share the same name and blood but are entirely different people. The loss of the doctor’s extraordinary wife causes him to resent his ordinary daughter, and he later resents Mr. Townsend, who is as appealing as Catherine is plain.

        Mr. Sloper finds it ironic that the charming Mr. Townsend would pursue his plainer daughter. James proves that Townsend and Catherine are opposites through levels of attractiveness, as Mr. Townsend is described as having “features like the young men in pictures”(14), where Catherine is said to have “a plain, dull, countenance”(6). Catherine is shown to be morally sound through her earnest actions and such descriptions as “excellently, imperturbably good”(6), and Townsend is seen to be deceitful through his dismissal of Catherine after he finds that he will not gain the full inheritance, and his exploitation of his sister’s wealth, and inability to have a dignified way of making money. Such differences make Dr. Sloper suspect that Morris has ulterior motives because the doctor cannot find reason in “a plain, inanimate girl to have a beautiful young fellow” (39); so he is driven to believe that Mr. Morris only wants Catherine’s inheritance. This suspicion is evident through the doctor’s meeting with Morris’s sister, Ms. Montgomery in her home on the Second Avenue in the book and at his home in the movie, when he asks her (Betty Linley) about Mr. Morris’ financial dependency on his sister. His distrust is demonstrated through his frank, disparaging discussions with Mr. Townsend and his refusal to give Catherine the full inheritance if she decides to marry Mr. Townsend.

        It is therefore made clear that Cathy neither resembles the mother that she was born from and the man she was on the verge of marrying. While a reader and viewer may find the doctor to be harsh of his judgments of Catherine, and Mr. Townsend, his views and behaviors are given dimension once the reader sees how ironic it is that Catherine is so different from her mother and fiancé. It is such relationships and effects of past events that bring complexity to characters in any story.

Work Cited

James, Henry. Washington Square. New York: Dover, 1998.

Shauna Dillon