‘Washington Square’ & ‘The Heiress’

Summer Readings & Screenings
Montgomery Clift and Olivia de Havilland in ‘The Heiress’ (Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

In this fourth and final installment of our summer conversation series, we discuss Henry James’s classic novella Washington Square (1880), along with William Wyler’s film adaptation, The Heiress (1949). Catch up our previous discussions here, here, and here.

We hope you’ve enjoyed these readings and screenings as much as we have!



I gave you a hard time earlier this summer about how you’ll refer to Dante at the drop of a hat.  But, if I’m being honest, I have a similar obsession: Henry James. Baroque syntax and secret-filled plot? Jamesian, I say! Silly character names? Might I introduce you to Fanny Assingham from The Golden Bowl?

So of course I’m delighted to conclude our series with James’s 1881 novella Washington Square. It’s not my favorite book by James. It wasn’t James’s, either. In his introduction to The New York Stories of Henry James, Colm Tóibín quotes a letter the young writer sent on the eve of publication. The tale is, James writes, “a poorish story in three numbers—a tale purely American.” Coming from James, “purely American” is hardly a term of praise. Yet minor James is major pretty much anyone else. Besides, it’s partly the minorness of Washington Square—its clear, compact story; its low style, at least by the high standards of late James; its embrace of delightful wit over chasm-like interiority—that makes it so enjoyable.

As Washington Square opens, our heroine Catherine Sloper is a meek character whose defining feature is how minor, how unworthy of notice, she seems. “She was not ugly,” James writes bitchily, “she had simply a plain, dull, gentle countenance.” “She was not abnormally deficient” in intellect, he considerately adds, though “she occupied a secondary place” in the 1840’s New York City scene. Catherine is not spirited like The Portrait of a Lady’s Isabel Archer; she lacks the dazzlingly cold intelligence of Kate Croy in The Wings of the Dove.

Yet Catherine does have one thing: a goodly income. And when her father Dr. Sloper dies in years to come, she’ll have something else: an even goodlier inheritance. Enter Morris Townsend: handsome and slick, a playboy who has wasted away his little resources and is keenly interested in getting (and spending) more. He quickly sells the unsuspecting Catherine not just on his fineness but on his goodness—and on his genuine love for her.

Dr. Sloper, though, a cynic who deprecates romance in the name of rationalism, sees through Morris and makes his skepticism known. Catherine, despite fearing her domineering father, stands up for herself and her love. Wills are re-written and Morris’s commitment is tested. It, of course, fails, leaving Catherine alone—estranged from her father and expelled from the land of innocence where she resided at the story’s beginning.

Catherine begins Washington Square “the softest creature in the world”; she ends hard as diamond.

Indeed, Catherine’s transformation is remarkable. She begins Washington Square “the softest creature in the world”; she ends hard as diamond. At the story’s conclusion, Morris, gone even more to seed, comes back years later to beg for forgiveness and, through a renewed romance, for some money. Catherine sees him with frightening, and deserved, coldness: “It seemed to be he, and yet not he; it was the man who had been everything, and yet this man was nothing.” On the first page, Catherine seems almost beneath the narrator’s regard. By the end, she’s attained the narrator’s own acute, and chilly, vision.

It’s a classic story dramatically told, with the typical James gems. Of Catherine’s meddling aunt, who quickly falls in love with the idea of Catherine falling in love with Morris, he writes, “Mrs. Penniman frequently assured him that his daughter had a delightful nature; but he knew how to interpret this assurance. It meant, to his sense, that Catherine was not wise enough to discover that her aunt was a goose.” As Catherine considers whether to follow the imperatives of her father or her heart, James observes, she “had an entirely new feeling, which may be described as a state of expectant suspense about her own actions. She watched herself as she would have watched another person, and wondered what she would do.”

That last bit hints at what I love most about this novel and about James generally: what I would call his aesthetic morality. James’s characters often look at themselves, and more importantly at others, in aesthetic terms: as characters in a play, or paintings in a parlor, or figures in a novel. Catherine believes her own life is becoming a page-turner—and, in the process, becoming exciting, even beautiful, for the first time; Catherine’s aunt sees herself as the orchestrator of a great love story; Dr. Sloper sees his daughter as an innocent walking into a tragic drama.

This way of seeing makes people incredibly interesting (a crucial James word), a source of delight and pleasure. Catherine, when seen as a character in a plot, begins to enchant others—and herself. But this aesthetic perception also transforms people into a means to an end, objects that exist to give delight and pleasure. To see others, and ourselves, in aesthetic terms can be transfigurative, James suggests. It also can be cruel.

I could go on (and on) about James but I’ll stop here. What are you thinking, Griffin? Did the sad story of Washington Square and its filmic adaptation, The Heiress, suit you in the waning days of summer?



I’m trying my best not to start off by mentioning Dante here, but as always, I just can’t help myself: Catherine’s inexorable decline into the cold, repetitive, loveless life of a lonely New York spinster reminds me of the frigid fates of more than a few citizens of the infernal City of Dis. And if in Washington Square James slowly and steadily cools the temperature of Catherine’s heart until it dips just below freezing, William Wyler’s 1949 The Heiress brings us all the way down to absolute zero.

As you know, critics have long argued that James’s novels are inherently unfilmable—there’s just no way to compress the subtle smoothness of his prose, his razor-sharp wit, and the deep psychological nuances of his characters’ constant introspection into a dramatic feature lasting only two hours. Judging from the many liberties Wyler takes with James’s plot in The Heiress (the film is really an adaptation of an adaptation of Washington Square, inspired more by the 1947 Tony Award-winning play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz than James’s novella), the director couldn’t agree more. There’s no Jamesian subtlety or charming nineteenth-century mannerisms here—just straight, uncut drawing-room drama, as initially uncomfortable scenes (Catherine’s awkward dances at her cousin’s wedding party, for example) give way to absolutely unbearable ones (like the close-quarter blowout between Dr. Sloper and Morris, when the latter impetuously demands the hand of the former’s daughter).

Montgomery Clift and Ralph Richardson in ‘The Heiress’ (Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

That’s not to say that Wyler doesn’t share any of James’s philosophical concerns, or that his unabashedly entertaining Hollywood film does nothing more than satisfy his audience’s raw thirst for melodramatic score-settling. I’m particularly intrigued by your reference to James’s “aesthetic morality,” where characters (and readers) can be beguiled by beauty into treating others (and themselves) as means to pleasurable ends. It’s only natural that James, a novelist, approaches the question in a narratological key—that is, his characters are constantly at risk of being seduced by stories. Wyler, on the other hand, is working in a visual medium (film), and so he takes care to show how images can be just as deceiving. After all, Washington Square itself, as even James concedes, is a kind of genteel image for the good life in New York: it possesses a “riper, richer, more honorable look” than “other quarters of the long, shrill city.”

Wyler finds the perfect metaphor for the deceptive (and revelatory) capacities of images in the activity Dr. Sloper chillingly refers to as Catherine’s only virtue besides her money: needlepoint. Shot after shot portrays Catherine (played with incredible depth and emotional versatility by the great Olivia de Havilland, who won an Oscar for the role) seated in close-up, poring intently over her stitching. Like Narcissus, she admires herself reflected in her creation, even if we notice something different: her needlepoint is beautiful, but unoriginal, reinforcing our understanding of her moral conformism. As happens in the dance scene, Catherine always follows diligently, but never leads. She’s a copyist, not an artist.

Of course, works in needlepoint also have undersides—those messy, tangled sites where the threads are haphazardly joined in unsightly ties and knots. Wyler gives a considerable amount of screen time to the backs of Catherine’s needlepoint, which mimics the harrowing realization that Catherine confronts midway through the film: everything—from her plush, picture-perfect life in a beautiful townhouse, to her father’s affection, to Morris’s love—is false and superficial, stitched together at the back by a web of petty ambitions, jealousies, and recriminations.

Wyler plays with this contrast—beauty at the surface and ugliness underneath—throughout the film, but to my mind, he never gives a satisfying resolution. Hopelessness, encapsulated in the refrain of the popular song Plaisir d’amour that Morris plays for Catherine at the beginning of their courtship (“The pleasure of love only lasts a moment / the sorrow of love lasts a lifetime”), appears to win out in the end—many years after her jilting, Catherine takes sadistic pleasure in subjecting Morris to the same torment. The film concludes abruptly, with the shocking image of a deranged Morris banging desperately on the bolted door of 16 Washington Square. Wyler’s eye-for-an-eye ending in The Heiress is perhaps dramatically compelling, but for me it’s not philosophically convincing. Is that really all love is? A series of disappointments that ends in coldness and death? Do pain and suffering merely teach us, as they do Catherine, how to inflict even greater damage on those who have wounded us?

Tony, help me out here: tell me there’s more to love than cruelty, sadness, and despair! Do you find that Wyler, or for that matter James, gives us any reason to hope for a better, lighter end, if not to Catherine’s and Morris’s story, then at least for the whole human enterprise of romantic love?



The way I’d begin to talk you off the ledge is by asking a different question: was Catherine wrong in choosing to love Morris? Was she wrong to believe in beauty—in the beauty of Morris’s character, in the beauty of their relationship, in the beauty of love itself—because this choice led to almost unendurable pain? Morris proved himself a scoundrel. Does that mean Catherine shouldn’t have believed in the first place?

Let’s entertain a counterfactual. What would Catherine’s life have been like had she not believed Morris; had she believed, and followed, her father instead? James’s Catherine is slightly different from Wyler’s. At the beginning, film Catherine is simpler, more melodramatically ingenuous than novella Catherine: when Morris first declares his interest, Olivia de Havilland’s mouth literally drops open, her eyes widening in surprise at the prospect of romantic bliss. And, by the end, film Catherine is far colder, much crueler, than novella Catherine. In Washington Square, Catherine calmly, composedly rejects Morris’s bid at a rapprochement. In the film, she becomes vengeful, leading Morris on, causing him to believe she’s willing to start things over only to leave him, abandoned and alone, crying to be let in.

Yet despite the differences between film and book, I think we can say that, in both versions, had Catherine chosen filial obedience over romantic belief, she would have lived a miserable life—one without interest (that Jamesian word again), one without risk or courage or meaning. Dr. Sloper would have continued to find her almost contemptibly simple; her aunt would have continued to pester and bother; her life would have been filled with embroidery and stilted conversation and not much else. In James’s book and Wyler’s film, Catherine’s end is bad. It would have been worse, because emptier, had she chosen against Morris and love from the start.

Beauty’s end doesn’t mean that beauty never existed.

Another way of putting this: Catherine’s love of Morris is itself beautiful, even if it works out poorly. Think of the moment in The Heiress when Catherine has just returned to Washington Square from a trip abroad. (Her father has taken her to Europe in the hopes that the old world will cause Catherine to forget her jumped-up American suitor.) When Catherine meets Morris outside in the rain, she declares both her continued love for him and her newfound willingness to buck her father’s prohibitions. In that moment, Olivia de Havilland’s face, which the movie has done much to keep aggressively plain, becomes positively radiant. Montgomery Clift, whose face has been smooth and sly throughout, likewise lights up. These are two gorgeous actors, and the camera allows them for once to be fully, openly, almost supernaturally beautiful.

At least on my viewing, Morris seems genuinely in love with Catherine here. It’s impossible to tell such things, of course, since James and Wyler both refuse to give us Morris’s perspective. James dips into Catherine’s interiority regularly, and into Dr. Sloper’s occasionally, but we almost never see Morris’s motivations or desires described. In The Heiress, the camera tends to focus on Catherine’s face whenever she’s in conversation with her lover; her emotional shifts are made visible, Morris’s remain opaque. Yet, in the moment when Catherine boldly casts her lot with Morris whatever consequences may come, we see both faces and they are both enchanted and enchanting. Catherine has made a beautiful choice, one of daring and nobility, and it has made her beautiful in Morris’s eyes.

Yes, Morris soon goes offscreen and, while he’s there, decides to jilt Catherine. The moment of transformation doesn’t last. But this doesn’t negate the transformation that happened, even if only momentarily. Catherine has risked it all and she has lost. Yet if she hadn’t risked, she never would have experienced such a moment—a moment that almost seems to redeem the boring years before it and the sad years after it. Beauty’s end doesn’t mean that beauty never existed.

So no, I don’t think that Wyler or James give us reason to hope for a lighter end for Catherine and Morris. But they suggest that there’s something beautiful at work in love—especially in love that risks something (that is to say, in true love), even in love that ends in sadness.

Griffin Oleynick is an assistant editor at Commonweal. Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, SUNY and a columnist at Commonweal. 

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