In Washington Square, his 1880 novella, Henry James goes out of his way to tell us that Catherine Sloper is a little bit fat. The shy daughter of a well-off New York City physician, Catherine spends much of her free time embroidering, and when she has pocket money she uses it to buy sweets, which she eats alone. In The Heiress, William Wyler’s 1949 adaptation, the scope of her pleasures is just as narrow. When the film opens, Catherine, played by Olivia de Havilland, is a grown woman of 21, living in her father’s comfortable house in the company of a silly, giggling aunt. She is unmarried, and poised to inherit a lot of money when her widowed father eventually dies.
But for all her wealth and education, Catherine has not inherited any of the self-assured equanimity of the rich. Her father is openly disappointed in her, and it’s not hard to see why. Catherine is unsociable and childishly timid; she seems fearful, and unfit to cope with even the minor daily violences of adult life. In one early scene, she sheepishly asks a fishmonger to remove the head of a large cod, and averts her eyes as he chops it off with a thudding meat cleaver. When she is dragged to a party, the man she dances with offers to go get her a glass of wine, and never returns. Catherine waits on a bench for him for the length of a waltz, her eyes nervously scanning the crowd. One of the first statements that The Heiress makes about gender is that women are easier to taxonomize than men. We are made to understand that Catherine is the kind of girl who would wind up sitting alone at a party, and then she does.
It is at that same party that Catherine meets Morris Townsend, a young man recently returned from a long trip overseas. Morris is played by the strong-jawed Montgomery Clift, who in 1949 was so vigorously handsome that his face looked synthetic. Morris is charming, and charmed by Catherine’s awkwardness. He laughs when she steps on his feet and invites her into private jokes. But as his visits to her home become more frequent, Morris’s manner develops the primal phoniness of a salesman. He is overly familiar with the servants; he drinks her father’s liquor. At one point he asks Catherine to listen to his rendition of “Plaisir d’amour,” a classical French song about the ephemerality of love. Catherine’s father doesn’t like Morris; he thinks the young man is after Catherine’s money, and understands his daughter as a girl too innocent to be smart. He warns her to be careful. But the reality is that while Catherine has none of the knowing skepticism that her father wishes she had, she’s not very good at playing Morris’ smitten naïf, either. Her interactions with her lover are marked more with anxious confusion than with uncritical ardor. When he finally kisses her, she looks as bewildered as she does pleased.
Morris persuades Catherine to elope, and her father makes it clear that she will be disinherited if she does. She is offered the emblematic choice between her childhood loyalty to her father and adult sociality. She chooses the latter, and confesses to Morris in the rain that she loves him more than her father or his money. When the hour of their elopement comes, Morris doesn’t show up. Her aunt laments, “Oh Catherine, why couldn’t you have been more clever?”
Most of those around her understand Catherine’s problem as a lack of cynicism—she wouldn’t have gotten her feelings hurt if she had known enough to expect less of people. But throughout the film, it is clear that Catherine possesses an acute and painful self-consciousness. She is conscious of her own naïvete; she knows just how small her world is. And she is aware that her own charms are few, feeble, and unlikely to deliver her into adult happiness. Her desire to marry Morris in the first half of the film is less about the struggle of youthful hope against the bitterness of experience than it is about winning dignity for an undersized life, and maintaining the right to make her own compromises.
In the contemporary languages of therapy and self-help, romantic disappointments and other losses of innocence tend to be spoken of as formative, ultimately productive traumas, events that baptize the young subject into the realities of adult interaction. Catherine understands this; the trouble is that she does not want to be baptized. “I love him, father” she says dryly after Morris’ abandonment. “Does that humiliate you?” Catherine knows that the only cliché more tired than a man who abandons a woman is the cynicism of the woman who expects him to. Her anger is that she is not permitted to choose her own delusions or live beyond the boundaries of her type.
Catherine’s revenge comes in enacting psychic violence upon the men who have wronged her: she seeks out precise, proportional, and appropriate ways to be cruel. As her father descends into illness, she withholds her love in return for his attempts to police it: on his deathbed, she refuses to see him, and he dies without a reconciliation with her. In the years after his death Catherine, now very rich, becomes bitter and ostentatiously distrustful. She has achieved social confidence but makes a point of brushing off invitations; she dresses better, but rejects compliments. She seems determined to present herself as wounded. When Morris eventually reappears, he is wearing the pencil moustache of a cartoon villain. He pleads love and misunderstanding, and Catherine agrees to elope with him. But when he arrives at her door to collect her, she tells her maid to bolt the door. The last frame shows her ascending a staircase away from him, while Morris pounds against the door and wails in distress. She wears of an expression of knowing calm that contains no trace of timidity.