Whatever Happened to a Happy Family?

         If I were to teach a class on family relationships or women's issues, there are many books and films I could use as examples of what not to do. Many of the women are treated badly in stories, such as A Doll's House, The Heiress, Pygmalion, and My Fair Lady. Even though they deal with such hardships, some still sound the strength to turn their life around for the better.

         In The Heiress, directed in 1949 by William Wyler and based on Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) was a very shy young girl. She had hardly been exposed socially except to the conversations with her father (Ralph Richardson) and aunt (Miriam Hopkins). Her father had made very little effort to teach her things about society, but he was very quick to put her down for doing something wrong. For example, she thought she looked splendid and took after her mother in the red dress that she bought. However, Dr. Sloper made fun of her by saying she looked as though she had eighty thousand a year and that her mother had dominated the color, unlike Catherine. He even went as far as to tell his sister that Catherine was unmarriageable. This is not a healthy relationship between a father and daughter. He had a formal concern for her future, but it was not a concern from love. This lack of love turned Catherine into a old maid. The only triumph she got was from locking Morris out and climbing the stairs with her candle burning bright.

         Miss Eliza Doolittle did not have much of a family in Pygmalion or My Fair Lady, but she did have her independence for a short time. George Bernard Shaw's 1913 Pygmalion may set a good example for women because it at least leaves one with hope that Eliza will gain back her independence and proper life. The self-concerned Higgins has no respect for Eliza and no appreciation for how much she has learned. She sets a good example by showing that she did not have to put up with that. George Cukor's 1964 film My Fair lady shoes a submissive Eliza (Audrey Hepburn) coming back to serve Higgins (Rex Harrison). This version is not very helpful in teaching women they do not have to like in a thankless relationship.

         Henrik Ibsen's 1789 A Doll's House, filmed twice in 1973 by Joseph Losey and Patrick Garland respectively, can be seen in two ways: one as a woman who has lived a lie in an unhappy marriage for eight years, or as a highly intelligent woman who has sacrificed her pride to give everything she possibly can to her family. If I were to go with the second view, then this would be a very good example of a woman's strength to teach. Nora (Jane Fonda/Claire Bloom) had sacrificed her honor to borrow the money she needed to save her husband's life. She has been very brilliant in handling the money to pay back the loan and manage the house. However, her husband, Torvald (David Warner/Anthony Hopkins), does not have much respect for her abilities. She soon sees his rage and decides she could no longer live in that type of relationship.

         The women in these three stories have dealt with a lack of respect and love. Fortunately, Catherine, Eliza at least in the original play, and Nora have found the strength to abandon their abusive relationships. These situations could be studied and viewed that, even when times are tough, one has the ability to make them better.

Jessica Chandler

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