Laurie Calhoun

 

Becoming One's Self: 

The Existentialist Message of Wyler's The Heiress

 

 Summary:  In William Wyler's The Heiress, Catherine Sloper, a wealthy spinster, is courted by Morris Townsend, an opportunistic suitor.  Dr. Austin Sloper, the woman's father, sees immediately through the young man's scheme to marry into money.  While on the face of it this is the simple story of a father who attempts to protect his naïve daughter from exploitation by an unscrupulous gold digger, beneath the surface lies a complex network of valuational issues which I hope to illuminate.  The film raises a host of questions regarding the place of the individual in the context of society, and the meanings imparted to life by conscious beings.  In the end, the film metaphorically reflects an existentialist picture of human valuation and action.

 "I thought if you stayed on, you might help Catherine"

 

The Heiress[1] opens with Dr. Sloper asking his sister, Lavinia Penniman, to spend the winter at his home in order to "help" his daughter to be more sociable, to the ostensible end of finding her a suitable husband. Lavinia responds, "Help her?  Help her how, Austin?"  And he explains: "For example, at sister Elizabeth's party this evening.  Perhaps you could persuade Catherine to join in with the young people, enjoy herself."  Catherine is rather reclusive and spends much of her free time embroidering, rather than interacting with people of her own age.  Lavinia's initial response reveals that she does not seem to think that Catherine is in need of any help.  Nonetheless, a few minutes later Lavinia says to Catherine, "Don't go off by yourself tonight, will you?  Stay with all of us and enjoy the party."  Catherine immediately perceives, "You have been talking to father....  Father would like me to be composed and to join in the conversation." Although at first she seems slightly annoyed by Lavinia's solicitude, Catherine quickly reverts to filial piety:  "I would do anything to please him.  There's nothing that means more to me than that!"

Left to her own devices, Catherine is inclined to spurn the conventions of high society.  In describing some of the women at a hospital committee meeting she recently attended, she says, "Some of the ladies on the committee are so foolish they're useless.  They think it ill-bred to know anything about food or what is done in the kitchen."  Catherine has a natural disdain for false displays of civility, and this is no doubt one of the reasons why she has such trouble making casual conversation with people of her social class.

In exhorting Lavinia to help Catherine "enjoy herself," Dr. Sloper intimates that she does not do so on her own.  This is the first blatant indication that the father's and daughter's world views are thoroughly at odds with one another.  Catherine wants to please her father, and her father wants her to enjoy herself in the "proper" way, that is, in a manner fitting to his image of what she should be.  Dr. Sloper is bothered by his daughter's behavior, for he regards it as inappropriate to her social class and wealth. His derogatory attitude toward Catherine's embroidery is illustrated in remarks such as:  "Is Catherine starting another of these things?... I hope she doesn't let it become her life's work."  When she shows him the fish that she has purchased from a vendor on the street, he expresses approval about the purchase but then quickly adds, "Next time, let the man carry it in for you."  In such situations, Catherine habitually furrows her brow in regret over her failure to reflect her father's ideas of how she should act.  At one point, Austin laments to his sister, Elizabeth Almond: 

"She's gone to the best schools in the city.  She's had the finest training I could get her in music and dancing.  She's sat with me evenings on end;  I've tried to make conversation with her and give her some social adeptness.  I've given her freedom, whatever I could.  The result is what you see:  an entirely mediocre and defenseless creature, with not a shred of poise."

Elizabeth responds, "But Austin, you're so intolerant.  You expect so much."  Austin gazes dreamily in the distance and replies, "Do you remember her mother, Liz?  Her mother, who had so much grace and gaiety.  This is her child."   Elizabeth protests:  "Austin, no child could compete with this image you have of her mother.  You've idealized that poor dead woman beyond all human recognition."  Dr. Sloper emerges from his daydream and reacts defensively:  "You're not entitled to say that.  Only I know what I lost when she died, and what I got in her place." The implication is that Catherine's mother died in childbirth, a fact for which Dr. Sloper seems on some level to hold his daughter responsible.

Dr. Sloper seems either unwilling or unable to refrain from pointing out Catherine's foibles to her, often immediately subsequent to his having praised her.  This has the effect of making Catherine believe for an instant that she has pleased her father and then revealing that she nonetheless fails to measure up to his standards, which always advert ultimately to the image in his memory of his deceased wife.  For example, when Catherine appears ready to go to Elizabeth's party in a new dress, obviously designed to the end of pleasing her father, he begins by saying, "Is it possible that this magnificent person is my daughter?  But you're sumptuous, opulent!"  Then the compliment progressively degenerates:  "You look as if you have eighty thousand a year," and finally he ends by admonishing her when she points out the dress is cherry red, a color which her mother used to wear.  Dr. Sloper regretfully sighs, "Ah, yes.  But Catherine, your mother was fair.  She dominated the color."

 

The Beginning of the End

 

At the party for which she has so painstakingly primped, Catherine makes the acquaintance of the handsome and debonair Morris Townsend.  Morris clearly registers that Catherine is maladroit in both conversation and manner.  He takes note of her nervous and inappropriate waving of her fan and the fact that she does not seem to have much of anything to say.  While they dance Morris says to her, "Miss Sloper, we must make an arrangement:  I will not kick you, if you will not kick me."  When she apologizes, he quickly excuses her by placing the blame upon himself.  This is one of many times when Morris registers faults on the part of Catherine but then cleverly transforms them into the appearance of faults of his own or even positive character traits of Catherine's.

When he excuses himself in order to retrieve glasses of punch for them, Catherine becomes inordinately disconcerted, for she fears that he will disappear, as the last man with whom she danced had done under the pretense that he would bring back refreshments. When Catherine tries to prevent Morris from leaving, he asks facetiously, "Are you a member of the temperance league?"  In nervousness she responds, "Yes, I believe that I am."  He replies, "Oh.  Well, I'm not.  Will you excuse me for a moment?" This interaction is symbolically significant, for Catherine is very much an ascetic, in contrast to her father and Morris Townsend, whose aesthetic natures are fundamentally at odds with Catherine's.

Once reunited, Morris informs Catherine, "I just met your father....  He left before I could ask when I might call." Revealing how unaccustomed she is to having suitors, Catherine replies, "His office hours are in the morning.  Are you not well, Mr. Townsend?"  Although Catherine's behavior consistently reveals to Morris her social ineptitude and her utter lack of grace and self-confidence, he nonetheless pursues her assiduously during the next week.  He visits Catherine at the Sloper residence three times before finally encountering Dr. Sloper, who invites Morris to join them for dinner.  Dr. Sloper nearly immediately detects Morris' ingratiating manner during this first encounter in the Sloper home:  "Mr. Townsend you're full of agreeable and flattering observations, both of Catherine and myself."  But, although from the beginning Dr. Sloper finds this young man's manner annoying, he is not deeply disturbed by Mr. Townsend's abrupt insinuation into Catherine's life until he proposes marriage to her only a few days after they met and without first seeking her father's permission.

Dr. Sloper invites Mrs. Montgomery to his home in order to find out more about her brother.  Through the conversation he learns that Morris has not earned his livelihood, nor did he help his sister, a widow with five children, when he inherited some money.  Rather, he traveled around Europe "enlarging his capacities," as Mrs. Montgomery puts it.  After having been introduced to Catherine by Dr. Sloper, Mrs. Montgomery observes that:

"She, she is very shy....  I can only suppose that Morris is more mature in his feelings than I had thought.  This time he has not sought out superficial charms.  Perhaps he has considered the gentle character underneath."

However, at this point Mrs. Montgomery is unaware that Catherine is an heiress.  At the end of their conversation, Dr. Sloper implores Mrs. Montgomery, "Tell me she's not a victim of his selfishness.  Tell me I'm wrong!"  Mrs. Montgomery replies, "I must go now," diplomatically refusing to offer her opinion on the matter.

Catherine and both of her aunts are thrilled at the prospect of Catherine's betrothal to Morris.  But, although Morris' own sister and Lavinia Penniman seem to have surmised that Morris may indeed have more than a casual interest in Catherine's fortune, the latter certainly does not think that this is a reason to reject him. Her view seems to be pragmatic.  She may well believe that there is a sense in which the two members of any couple "use" one another, in that both benefit from their association with one another as a couple.  In this case, while Morris' expensive tastes and preferred lifestyle require money, which he is unwilling to acquire by dint of hard work, Catherine too would benefit from associating with such a charming young man of manners and style.  Elizabeth warns her brother:  "Be very careful, Austin.  This man may take good care of Catherine and her money and make her very happy."  Lavinia insists:  "He will.  I know he will!"  Austin protests, "But she's been taken in!"  Elizabeth sighs wistfully, "She's in love."  These two older women have perhaps forsaken romantic ideas about relationships based on the chimerical (or at least evanescent) notion of love found in fairy tales, and they encourage Dr. Sloper not to destroy this unprecedented opportunity for Catherine to marry.  From Lavinia's perspective, a marriage to Morris Townsend would be highly beneficial to Catherine. She melodramatically insists:  "You will kill her if you deny her this marriage."

Regarding her brother, Mrs. Montgomery observes:  "I have accepted the good and bad in him, just as I accept them in my children....  I think, Doctor, you expect too much of people.  If you do, you'll always be disappointed."  The women all excuse Morris' glaring fault, his financial irresponsibility, since they believe it to be outweighed by his virtues, which Dr. Sloper seems altogether unable to appreciate.  Of course, this is most likely because Morris' paramount virtue is his physical attractiveness, something which Dr. Sloper is not really in a position to value. When Catherine asks, "Don't you think he is the most beautiful man you have ever seen?", her father replies:  "Well, he is very good looking, my dear.  Of course, you wouldn't let a consideration like that sway you unduly."  Thus her father expresses the view that physical appearance is ephemeral and certainly not a sufficient basis for a lifelong matrimonial relationship.

During their meeting regarding the astounding escalation of his daughter's relationship, Dr. Sloper frankly confronts Morris with the news that he is not even a suitable candidate for Catherine's hand:

"You've no profession, meed, please sit, no visible resources or prospects.  And so you are in a category from which not to choose a son-in-law.  Particularly not for my daughter, who is a weak young woman with a large fortune....  You are in the wrong category."

Morris protests, "But your daughter does not marry a category; she marries a man.  A man she's good enough to say she loves." Dr. Sloper retorts, "A man who offers nothing in return?"  And Morris persists, "Is it possible to offer more than the most tender affection and a lifelong devotion?"  But Dr. Sloper stands firm:

"A lifelong devotion is measured after the fact.  Meanwhile, it is usual to offer a few material securities.  Well, what are yours?  A handsome face and figure and a very good manner.  Oh, they're excellent, as far as they go.  But they don't go far enough." 

 

Morris refuses to surrender, "You think I'm an idler."  And Catherine's father quips:  "It doesn't matter what I think, once I tell you I just don't think of you as a son-in-law."  Morris observes, "You think I'd squander her money," and Austin confesses, "Ah, I plead guilty to that."

At the culmination of their meeting, Catherine dashes pathethically downstairs to beg her father to sympathize with her cause.  In disgust, Dr. Sloper responds: "Catherine, Catherine you are without dignity."  Ironically, the reason why Catherine is so desperate to capitalize on this unique opportunity is because she believes what her father has for years taught her to believe, that she is unworthy of marriage.  Catherine virtually pleads that she be allowed to marry Morris because she has been convinced, through demoralization, that she must avail herself of any opportunity to do so, since another one may never come along. The manner in which she practically throws herself at Morris is a consequence of the insecurity engendered by her father's persistent habit of reminding her how far she is from measuring up to the paradigm of the ultimate wife, her mother.  When a man at last indicates interest in her, Catherine leaps at the chance to prove to her father and herself that she is worthy of marriage.

Recognizing that he has incensed Dr. Sloper, Morris contritely says, "We cannot marry without your approval.  That would bring unhappiness to all of us."  Because he is certain that in Catherine's absence Morris will find someone else with what she has to offer, Dr. Sloper agrees to test Morris' loyalty over a period of six months while Catherine travels abroad.  During this time, Morris makes himself at home at the Sloper's Washington Square home, paying regular visits to Lavinia.  Having already decided that this is precisely the lifestyle he wants, Morris passes the time playing parlor games with Catherine's aunt, drinking Dr. Sloper's brandy and smoking his cigars.  Lavinia is evidently thrilled at the prospect of having a dashing nephew-in-law, and Morris naturally avails himself of this opportunity to endear himself further to Catherine's aunt and Dr. Sloper's sister.

After a few months in Europe, Dr. Sloper is disturbed to learn that Catherine has not renounced her plan to marry Morris Townsend.  Rather than waiting out the six months, Dr. Sloper himself, apparently bored with Catherine as a travelling companion, cuts the trip short. Given his overt disdain of his daughter on every level, intellectual, cultural, and even physical, it might seem that Dr. Sloper should be grateful that anyone would deign to marry her. It might seem that he should be thrilled that Morris Townsend should be willing to tolerate Catherine, with all of her shortcomings and ineptitudes, in exchange for financial security and social status.  Yet he is not.  Dr. Sloper sets up an unfulfillable desideratum for Catherine:  to win the heart of someone whose heart can only be won by a woman of much greater intelligence, talent and beauty than has she.  Any man who professes an interest in Catherine must, the doctor seems to believe, have mercenary aims, since in reality she has no other attraction beyond her imminent inheritance of thirty thousand pounds per year.

Does Dr. Sloper secretly hope that his daughter will forever remain a spinster?  If so, this may be some sort of subconscious attempt at punishment of the person who in effect stole away the love of his life, the mother who died giving birth to Catherine.  Alternatively, Dr. Sloper may simply be offended at the crassness of Morris Townsend, his overt obsequiousness.  One might wonder whether Dr. Sloper would not have been so averse to the engagement, had Morris elongated the courtship before proposing.  But that possibility seems rather implausible, given that Dr. Sloper's opinion of his daughter is so low as to impel him to call into question the motives behind any suitor's alleged interest in Catherine. Even if someone loved Catherine for reasons other than her extreme wealth, Dr. Sloper could probably never believe it, since he himself regards her as eminently unworthy of love.

On the surface, what Dr. Sloper seems to find most irksome about Morris Townsend is that he is so blatant in his efforts to persuade the doctor and his daughter that he actually cares about something other than money.  But Morris Townsend and Austin Sloper are similar in ways which make the former's shamelessness offensive to the latter.  When Dr. Sloper comes home one morning to find Catherine receiving Morris, he immediately notes the identity and high quality of his cologne.  Later, Morris observes to Lavinia that, "You know, the doctor is a man of fine taste. It's strange that although we do not like each other, we seem to like the same things."  In contrast, Catherine's decline of her father's offer of hot chocolate, as they sit at the same table outside a café once frequented by him and Mrs. Sloper at once symbolizes and illuminates the chasm in Dr. Sloper's mind between the mother, who apparently shared his epicurean values, and the daughter, who does not.

 

Spheres of Value

 

Both Morris Townsend and Austin Sloper are sensualists, and from what we learn of his values, one gathers that Morris might very well have taken a strong liking for someone such as Dr. Sloper's wife.  The irreconcilable difference between Dr. Sloper and Mr. Townsend is that the former has, he believes, earned the right to a life of luxury, while the latter has not.  Lavinia believes that Morris' positive qualities, his comeliness and suavity, compensate for his financial infelicities.  Perhaps part of Dr. Sloper's antipathy toward Morris stems from simple jealousy.  An agreeable appearance sometimes does "go quite far" in a world where less attractive people are forced to work.

Dr. Sloper repeatedly expresses his concern that Morris Townsend will squander Catherine's sizeable inheritance, and although he does not say it, he seems to believe that at such time he would abandon her for someone else who can provide him with what she no longer can. The intrinsic plurality of interpretation is, interestingly enough, on Morris Townsend's side when he tells Catherine, "You're everything I've ever yearned for in a woman."  When he gazes dreamily after her as she leaves the party where they met, one cannot help wonder whether this is not in fact the truth.  It may very well be that all that Mr. Townsend yearns for in a woman is financial support, in which case he is not in the least bit duplicitous in making this proclamation.  And if Catherine's extreme wealth is a property of her, just as her appearance and her personality, then there would seem to be nothing more shameful about wanting to marry her for her money than for her mind.  When people bemoan the fact that their lovers only seem to value them for their bodies, this would seem to be equally peculiar, if one's body is as much a part of one's self as is one's mind.

Given the ample evidence (for example, that both men wear gloves of "the finest chamois" and prefer brandy of the highest quality), it is plausible that Dr. Sloper finds wealth every bit as important as Morris Townsend, and very simply resents his shameless efforts to conceal this fact, which have the effect of making it glaringly obvious.  Still, Dr. Sloper's attitude toward wealth is at least asymmetrical, if not inconsistent, since he thinks that wealth is not a property of Catherine which should be the basis of a marriage, though pennilessness is a property of Morris which is a basis for categorically rejecting his marriage proposal.  Whether or not he would ever acknowledge that he does believe financial status to be a relevant property when deciding whom to marry, there is no question that Dr. Sloper believes that other qualities can be enumerated and evaluated independently of persons.  In his anger over her stupidity in being duped by Morris, Dr. Sloper frankly confronts his daughter:  "You'll be a most entertaining companion....  Your gaiety and brilliance will make up the difference between the ten thousand a year you will have and the thirty thousand he expects."  But Catherine protests, "He does not love me for that!"  And Dr. Sloper continues, "No?  What else then?  Your grace, your charm, your quick tongue and subtle wit?"  Catherine replies, "He admires me."  Dr. Sloper cannot restrain himself:   "Now it's time for you to realize the truth:  How many girls do you think he might have had in this town?... A hundred women are prettier, a thousand more clever, but you have one virtue that outshines them all."  Catherine ingenuously asks, "What, what is that?"  And Dr. Sloper says it:  "Your money!  You have nothing else!" Catherine is shocked:  "Oh, what a terrible thing to say to me." But her father continues, "I don't expect you to believe that. I've known you all your life, and I have yet to see you learn anything.  With one exception, my dear:  you embroider.  Neatly."

This assault by her father renders Catherine all the more desperate to marry Morris.  Originally she wanted to prove to herself and her father that she was worthy of marriage.  But having been made painfully aware of her father's true assessment of her worth, Catherine wants to gain the love of someone like her father because she knows that he despises her.  (She may have known this, on some level, all along, in which case this was a latent motivation even before her father unequivocally expresses her disdain for her.)  At this point it becomes essential that Morris truly love Catherine, in order to prove that her father is wrong.  Catherine has been emotionally cast away by her father and believes that the only way to recover will be for Morris to catch her and thereby affirm that she does in fact instantiate some of the qualities which her father insists that she lacks.  While they await Morris' arrival, Catherine most significantly cries to Lavinia: "He must come!  He must take me away!  He must love me!  He must!"

Catherine refuses to believe her father's interpretation of Morris' real intentions until she is slapped in the face with the reality of his desertion.  When her aunt asks whether Catherine told Morris that she intended to disinherit herself, Catherine replies, "Of course; I told him everything.  He's to be my husband!"  After a moment, Catherine asks, "Aunt,...why shouldn't I have told Morris?"  And Lavinia mournfully replies, "Oh dear girl, why were you not...a little more clever?" indicating that Catherine's guilelessness has led to this sad state of affairs.  But then Lavinia suddenly attempts to defend Morris' abandonment by saying, "Morris would not want to be the cause of your losing your natural inheritance.  He could not see you impoverished." Catherine protests:  "Impoverished?  I have ten thousand a year.  That is a great deal of money!"  Finally, Lavinia can no longer hide what she believes to be the truth: "Not when one has expected thirty."  During this unforgettable scene, Catherine runs to the window at every sound, supposing that her knight in shining armor has come to rescue her from her cruel father.  But when the clock at last strikes two a. m., one and one-half hours after the man known for his extreme punctuality was to retrieve her, Catherine bursts into tears in recognition that she has been abandoned.  In the morning, she trudges up the stairs with her suitcases, looking as though she has aged ten years during this single night.

When Catherine speaks with her father again, one week after his cruel outburst, he begins by stating, "I can only assume that your departure is imminent."  But when Catherine informs him, "I am not leaving," he mistakenly infers that she has come around to his own view, and at last recognized the true nature of Morris' speciously amorous intentions:

"You have broken your engagement?  Oh, if you have, I must tell you Catherine that I admire you greatly for it....  I know the effort that you must have made....  But in time, Catherine, the pain will pass.  I cannot begin to tell you how proud of you I am.... Oh, deeply, most deeply proud."

 

This naturally has the effect of rubbing salt into Catherine's wounds, and she icily informs her father:  "He deserted me."  Dr. Sloper's reaction to the news that Catherine is not leaving exacerbates her already profound feeling of worthlessness, especially given that she actually went to Mrs. Montgomery's house to pay a visit to Morris even after his having so humiliatingly rejected her.  Mrs. Montgomery apprised the pining Catherine that Morris had borrowed money and moved to California.

When Dr. Sloper falls ill, he worries that Catherine might yet succumb to Morris Townsend's wily ways.  Dr. Sloper defends his harsh words, saying:  "Someday you'll realize I've done you a great service."  But Catherine fumes: 

"I can tell you now what you have done.  You have cheated me.  You thought that any handsome, clever man would be as bored with me as you were.  It was not love that made you protect me.  It was contempt."

 

Dr. Sloper counters, "Morris Townsend did not love you, Catherine."  And she continues: 

"I know that now, thanks to you."  Dr. Sloper replies, "Better to know it now than twenty years hence."  Catherine exclaims,  "Why?  I lived with you for twenty years before I found out you didn't love me.  I don't know that Morris would have hurt me or starved me for affection more than you did.  Since you couldn't love me, you should have let someone else try."  Her father is surprised at his daughter's newfound self-confidence and powers of assertion and humbly responds: "You have found a tongue at last, if only to say such terrible things to me."  Catherine retorts, "This is a field where you will not compare me to my mother."

Catherine has recognized that her father despises what he takes to be her mediocrity and points out the obvious implications of his own view:  "If I am to buy a man, I would prefer buying Morris."  Catherine realizes that if Dr. Sloper's own view about her worth were true, then it would be impossible, in principle, for her to marry anyone who was not a gold digger.  Her father professes to wish that a worthy suitor ask her hand in marriage, and a necessary requirement is that he be solvent.  But, according to Dr. Sloper's own overt and seemingly candid assessment of Catherine, she lacks any estimable qualities beyond her wealth.  Any man who is already well-off financially will have no reason to seek her hand in marriage, since he could secure the company of a much more charming, beautiful, intelligent, and talented woman.  Dr. Sloper wants someone to love Catherine for what she is not.  Paradoxically, anyone who did love Catherine would have to be a fool and therefore unworthy of her hand in marriage.

When Dr. Sloper again expresses his concern that Catherine might return to Morris, Catherine rushes for a piece of paper and pen so that Dr. Sloper can draft a new will and thus definitively preclude his precious money from being squandered by the likes of Morris Townsend.  But her forthright action persuades Dr. Sloper not to disinherit Catherine:  "I don't want to do it.  I don't want to disinherit my only child."  He realizes that upon his death he will no longer have any control over Catherine's actions, and if she is determined to fall into a trap, then there is nothing he will be able to do to prevent this from happening.  He admits, "I don't know what you'll do, Catherine," and she harshly apprises him, "That's right, father, you'll never know, will you?"

In the end, Catherine has earned the respect of her father, by standing up to him as she has never before been able to do.  Catherine's failure to reflect her father's cherished image of Mrs. Sloper demoralized Catherine continuously throughout her life.  But having at last recognized the domineering effect her father has had over her, Catherine refuses further to endure his imposition of his own values upon her.  In the end, Catherine refuses even to visit her father at his death bed.  Mariah implores Catherine to reconcile with the dying man, saying, "He wants you, Miss."  But Catherine coldly informs her:  "It's too late, Mariah."

 

Catherine's Problem and its Solution

 

On the day when Lavinia reports that she has seen Morris Townsend, she amazingly exonerates him for his comportment of seven years before.  She tells the calmly embroidering Catherine:  "He fears that you never understood him, that you never judged him rightly."  Catherine is astonished by her Aunt's attempts to persuade her to believe what could only be a patent lie about what transpired, and retorts, "How can you say that to me?  You were in this room the night he deserted me!"  But Lavinia is nonetheless willing to re-interpret Morris' egregious treatment of Catherine, insisting:  "He meant it nobly.  Really, he did."

Seven years after his betrayal, Morris reappears, still penniless, and rather more desperate. In seven years of "enlarging his capacities," Morris has yet to fulfill his most ardent desire, to be gainfully unemployed.  Upon returning to New York and learning that Catherine has not married and, more importantly, that her father is out of the picture, Morris recognizes the opportunity before him. In his reunion with Catherine, Morris proceeds to deploy his rhetorical powers once again, insisting:  "I've never ceased to think of you," and "It has been the desire of my life that you understand my motives."  He even claims that, "Catherine, it was because I loved you that I disappeared that night," and "I had to make a choice.  I chose your welfare rather than my own."  Thus Morris persistently feigns that his interest in Catherine has nothing whatsoever to do with her money.  But this time Morris fails, for Catherine realizes that nothing could have prevented his mailing her at least one letter during a period of time spanning seven years.  Even a poor man can afford one postage stamp.

Catherine relishes her newly acquired independence and seizes the opportunity to vindicate herself by victimizing Morris in precisely the manner in which he victimized her seven years before.  Her set up is presaged, though unnoticed by Morris, when she purposely avoids kissing him on the lips upon their second engagement.  Catherine's revenge is cruel in precisely the manner in which Morris' desertion was, but it has the positive effect of making Morris feel what he did to her seven years before.  Up until now he has known that he caused her pain, as he explicitly apologizes:  "Will you forgive me for the pain I caused you?" But Morris' understanding has been purely propositional.  Catherine now forces Morris to confront for the first time the reality of what he did to her, by switching roles with him.  This time she seduces him with the enticement of what she now knows that he desires above all else.  In seducing him, she proves to him that she is not to be despised as pathetically gullible. This time Morris is the victim, ironically, due to his own low opinion of her, which prevents him from entertaining even the possibility that she might be capable of his own sorts of machinations.

While it might seem that Catherine is the victor due to her smug revenge upon Morris Townsend, a more subtle interpretation would locate her victory in the fact that she has finally chosen her own set of values and way of life.  Morris and Dr. Sloper's values coincide nearly perfectly, but this is no accident, since both men's values are externally determined, by the fashions and tastes of high society.  In defeating Dr. Sloper's "enemy," Catherine defeats her father all over again, for Morris Townsend is a surrogate for Austin Sloper, insofar as he represents precisely the same system of values which Catherine herself never affirmed at any point in her life.  She attempted to please her father and society by attempting to be something that she was not.  Through experimenting with life's possibilities, Catherine has gained a composure and self-esteem that she formerly lacked.  Ultimately, Catherine's victory is not over Morris Townsend, but over her father's tyrannical imposition of his values upon her.  Morris Townsend was simply a tool, a test, a trial which Miss Sloper had to survive in order to be at peace with herself.  Because of Morris Townsend, Catherine learns the truth about her father's view about her, and becomes strong enough to spurn his opinions.  Viewed in this way, Morris Townsend and Austin Sloper are virtually interchangeable metaphors for society.  Dr. Sloper's disdain of embroidery stems from his own embracement of a set of values inculcated by society, according to which mere "crafts" are less valuable than "fine arts".  But this distinction, between arts on the one hand and crafts on the other, is ultimately conventional and arbitrary.  Catherine attempted to pretend that she was something that she was not, by submitting to her father's demands that she be schooled in and talented at the arts and music, as her mother was.

But it is only in order to please her father that Catherine has attempted to fit into high society.  Her very efforts not to seem devoid of poise exacerbate her insecurity and lack of self-esteem, making her appear awkward and ungraceful to others.  Her furrowed brow is caused by her feeling ill-at-ease in the presence of others who are different from her and whom she attempts but fails to imitate.  Catherine does not "fit in" with the crowd.  Early on Catherine exhibits a sort of playfulness and freespiritedness, but this is perceptible only when she is not laboring under her oppressive concerns with disappointing her father (read: society).  She has a fine sense of humor, which clearly manifests itself in two scenes with Lavinia.  The first is when she jokingly responds to Lavinia's reminiscence about the meals she used to prepare for her now deceased husband:  "Then you have deceived me, Aunt."  Lavinia asks, "Well, how so?"  And Catherine wittily replies, "You led me to believe that you and he lived on love alone!"  At the party where she makes the acquaintance of Mr. Townsend, during one brief scene when Catherine is not preoccupied with her social ineptitude, Lavinia asks her, "Do you suppose that he [the Reverend Penniman, her now deceased husband] is watching over me tonight?" and Catherine replies, "That depends upon where he is, Aunt."  It is only when Catherine is overwhelmed by her fears about not fitting in that she loses this sort of spontaneous charm and beauty.  Her face betrays her insecurity in every such instance, rendering her ugly and aged looking, appearing totally desperate to be accepted by those around her. Catherine was plagued by her failure to "measure up" to the external standards applied to her by her father and others.  Her efforts to be something which she was not led her to become so self-deprecating that she came very nearly to despise herself.

Although a superficial interpretation of The Heiress would have the story be one of simple revenge and vindication, Catherine Sloper's victory clearly involves much more than that.  It is true that she causes Morris to experience the type of painful rejection and betrayal that she herself experienced at his hands, but this revenge is symbolic of a more substantial spiritual victory on her part.  Catherine is not good at banter and facile displays of culture, but she herself never valued such abilities except insofar as they were pleasing to her father.  In the end, Catherine discovers that there was never anything wrong with what she was in the very beginning:  a reclusive spinster occupied with her embroidery projects. At the end of The Heiress, Catherine Sloper prevails as a woman of strength and equanimity, having seen through the masks of "civilized" men such as Morris Townsend and Austin Sloper.  Catherine does not permit her wealth to dictate who she should be.  She has the opportunity to spend her time and money engaged in the socially sanctioned activities of the economic elite, but she prefers to occupy herself with an enterprise that is held in low esteem by the rich for the simple reason that it is characteristically an occupation of the lower classes, whose choices are greatly limited by financial constraints.  Catherine has come full circle, back to where she started, but now she is sure that this is what she wanted all along.  Catherine's poise and self-confidence have been boosted by the pain and suffering which she has been forced to endure.  Her father's cruel assessment of her and her coming to terms with Morris Townsend's crass opportunism leave Catherine a much stronger person than she was before.  It took a journey through hell for her to come to realize that the only refuge from the victimization of others, whether it be crassly mercenary, as in the case of Morris Townsend, or more subtly psychological, as in the case of her father, is found within oneself.

When Catherine hears Morris pounding desperately on the door, she pauses for a moment, as though she might succumb to the vestige of feeling for this man still within her heart.  But then she takes a deep breath and walks away from the door.  As she ascends the stairs, the light reflects her beauty as she clears this last hurdle. With this action, she has finally liberated herself from the former dependence of her self-worth upon the opinions of others.

 


[1] Although this film was based upon James' Washington Square, I am treating the film as a work unto itself.  Many, if not most viewers have not read the literary precedents to the films that they watch, and I wish to discuss the story as presented in the film.