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"
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!"
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.
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
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
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.
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
The Beginning of the End
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.
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.
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
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
"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
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.
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."
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
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
not for my daughter, who is a weak young woman with a large
fortune.... You are in
the wrong category."
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."
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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!"
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:
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.
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
"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."
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.
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
"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."
counters, "Morris Townsend did not love you, Catherine."
And she continues:
that now, thanks to you." Dr.
Sloper replies, "Better to know it now than twenty years
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
retorts, "This is a field where you will not compare me to my
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
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.
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,
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
 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.