In Henry James's 1880 novel Washington Square, Morris Townsend is clearly meant to be the antagonist. However, once I read this work and watched William Wyler's 1949 cinematic adaptation, The Heiress, I felt that Dr. Austin Sloper, as depicted by Ralph Richardson, was even more sinister and vile than Morris Townsend, portrayed by Montgomery Clift.
James and Wyler give the reader an image of Catherine Sloper, as played on screen by Olivia de Havilland, as meek, plain, and somewhat unintelligent. However, is this the way she really is, or is this the way her father perceives her? Dr. Sloper thinks of his daughter as an "unmarriageable girl" that no one could possibly want. How could any father think that about his own child?! Just because he never physically abuses Catherine, that does not mean his true feelings will not be seen through his words and actions. He obviously has not done much for her confidence level. Perhaps if he had tried to build her self-esteem, she would have had a little more self-respect and not been so intimidated by everyone. Perhaps if she had held herself in a little higher regard, she would have overlooked Morris Townsend altogether.
However, she does not overlook Morris. As a matter of fact she is so stunned that someone of his caliber wants her that she jumps much too quickly at the opportunity. Of course her father is a very intelligent man and sees right through Morris' intentions of getting to Catherine's fortune. However, he does not seem to care one bit about his daughter's feelings, only about protecting his own money. Morris and Dr. Sloper are playing a game of strategy with Catherine. They care only about who is going to win, not what it is going to do to the heart they play with. A father is supposed to have unconditional love for his child. Therefore, because he seems to have absolutely no regard for his daughter and her well being, this makes him even more foul inside than Morris Townsend. Maybe if Catherine had felt that unconditional love from her father, she would not have tried so hard to find it in the wrong place.
The Heiress does a good job of staying true to Washington Square. However, it seems that Wyler took some of the spice away from Dr. Sloper's character. Although he is still quite loathsome, he seems toned down just a bit from James's depiction. However, no matter which version one turns to, it is very clear that Dr. Sloper is nothing more than a big baby. He wants what he wants and cares nothing about how he gets it. Catherine tries so desperately to please him her whole life that eventually this is the only thing that she wants. Once she does find something other than him albeit bad for her, she eventually loses all faith in her father, and it destroys her inside. This never seems to bother Dr. Sloper, for he cares only that he has lost the game.
The only person that Catherine has left to lean on for support is Morris, and he leaves her. When her father finds out, he is not consoling so much as he is gloating and wallowing in the fact that Morris Townsend will not get the Sloper money. He is happy about his daughter's broken heart. In fact, he has never once in the novel or the film even told Catherine he loves her.
Dr. Sloper's actions are despicable. His blatant contempt for his own child and her feelings make him worse than Morris Townsend ever thought about being. To me the true villain in Washington Square and The Heiress is without a doubt Dr. Austin Sloper.