Charming, clever, cultured... what is he doing with her?
"When Catherine is about seventeen," he said to himself, "Lavinia will try and persuade her that some young man with a moustache is in love with her. It will be quite untrue; no young man, with a moustache or without, will ever be in love with Catherine."
Dr. Austin Sloper, Washington Square
Henry James's Washington Square tells the story of Catherine Sloper, a cripplingly shy woman who lives with her widowed father, Dr. Austin Sloper, and his flighty sister, Lavinia Penniman. Viewed by everyone as lacking personality, it's a big surprise when handsome,charming Morris Townsend takes an interest in her after meeting her at a party. Within weeks, they are saying they love each other and even consider getting engaged. Dr. Sloper thinks there is something not quite right about this match. After all, what kind of man would actually be attracted to such a ''dull'' girl?Originally written in 1880, it was brought to the stage by Ruth and Augustus Goetz and retitled The Heiress in 1947. Two years later, it was made into a movie with the play's title starring Olivia de Havilland, Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins, and Montgomery Clift, and won de Havilland an Oscar. It was adapted to film again under the original title in 1997 starring Jennifer Jason Leigh.A strongly character-driven, subversive story that plays with a lot of love and romance tropes of its time and even now, its resolution stands out.
The book contains examples of:
Break the Cutie: A double-whammy for Catherine. The first one comes from her father during their stay in Europe; when she tells him she still plans to marry Morris, he gives a speech lathed with sarcasm, comparing her to a mindless animal whose "value is twice as great" after her experiences abroad, ending it with "We have fattened the sheep before he kills it!" Then Morris—after finding out that Catherine will not be as rich as expected— turns his inner Jerk AssUp to Eleven hoping it will turn her off him, and when that fails, he cruelly dumps her and runs off to California.
The Charmer: Even Dr. Sloper admits that Morris is very charming, though he sees it as an act.
Deadpan Snarker: Dr. Sloper—most of his dialog with Catherine is nothing but snark.
Engagement Challenge: Not so challenging as other examples, but Dr. Sloper takes Catherine away with him to Europe for six months to test their relationship, reasoning that if Morris really loved Catherine and not her money, he would be willing to wait for her. He was willing to wait, but he didn't love her.
Foil: Marian Almond, Catherine's cousin, who is extroverted, conventional, and gets married at her earliest convenience. Note that this is a non-antagonistic example, as Marian was the closest thing Catherine had to a friend growing up and they are still somewhat close at the time of the story.
Genre Savvy: Aunt Penniman's meddling in Catherine's life is her deliberately playing the role of The Matchmaker in a lot of romance stories. Deep down, she is perfectly aware of what is really going on, but doesn't let it get in the way of her foolish romantic delusions.
Gold Digger: Dr. Sloper assumes correctly that Morris is just after Catherine's money. Dr. Sloper himself could be accused of being one, but he was always adamant that he married his late wife for love and that he earned everything he had.
The Hedonist: Morris actually inherited a decent amount of money at some point before the beginning of the story; however, he squandered it completely on hedonistic ventures. Even his sister reluctantly admitted during her "interview" with Dr. Sloper that he had used none of his inheritance to help her or her five children.
I Have No Daughter: Feeling that there is nothing more he can do to keep Morris and Catherine apart, he completely disinherits his daughter, leaving his $30,000 estate to various organizations. Catherine still gets $10,000 a year from her mother... but that's not enough for Morris.
Jerkass: Dr. Sloper, Aunt Penniman, Morris—basically everyone but Catherine has their moments.
Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Aunt Penniman highly overestimates her social intelligence and matchmaking skills. Dr. Sloper comes off this way, too, but it turns out not to be the case.
Like a Son to Me: Aunt Penniman never tells him this directly, but she does think to herself that if she and her late husband had been able to have children, they would have had a son not unlike Morris. This could be a factor in her Shipper on Deck tendencies, as it was not uncommon for cousins—especially in a wealthy family— to marry in the 19th century.
Maiden Aunt: Aunt Penniman is a widow, but she never sought out another man after the death of Rev. Penniman, and is content living her romantic fantasies through her niece and Morris.
Master of None: Catherine was trained in a variety of skills as a child, including singing and the piano, but as an adult she has no particular talent in any of them except embroidery.
Misery Builds Character: Implicit in the story—the heartbreak Catherine suffers due to the people around her forces her to stand on her own two feet and not depend on the love and approval of others to be happy. Otherwise, it's likely she may very well have remained an awkward, "dull" wallflower forever.
Na´ve Everygirl: A major part of the story is Catherine maturing out of this trope.
Oedipus Complex: Inverted—Morris actually can't stand Aunt Penniman, but she is both attracted to him and he reminds her of the son she wish she'd had.
Old Maid: A bit of subtext in the story is the other characters' belief that due to Catherine's shyness and "dullness", she will never find a man and will end up a spinster. When the story skipsahead 20 years, it concludes with Catherine at age 40, unmarried, and childless. However, Catherine is no Christmas Cake—she chose never to marry, and is perfectly content with her life and comfortable in her own skin in a way that she never was as a younger woman when she had to worry about pleasing her father or fulfilling social obligations of courtship and marriage.
Only Sane Woman: Mrs. Almond, Dr. Sloper's other sister, who is the most reasonable person in the story by a long shot. She thinks her brother's handling of the Morris situation and treatment of Catherine in general are needlessly cruel while at the same disagreeing with Aunt Penniman's meddling, guessing correctly that Morris is a Gold Digger.
Overprotective Dad: Dr. Sloper's attitude towards Morris seems like this on the outside... but in reality, he is trying to protect his money, not his daughter.
Parental Marriage Veto: Dr. Sloper tries to pull this on Catherine during the entirety of their relationship, even threatening to disinherit her. (Though he likely considers her an Inadequate Inheritor anyway.)
Plain Jane: Catherine, and while she never has a Beautiful All Along moment, the narrator and other characters describe that she has the kind of looks that would be better suited to a 40 year old than a 20 year old, making this perhaps a delayed version of She's All Grown Up.
Promotion to Parent: Mrs. Montgomery, Morris's older sister who more or less raised him after the death of their parents.
Purple Prose/ Wall of Text: Being a work of Henry James, practically the modern Trope Codifier, the language can be purplish and hard to grasp at times. Incidentally, contemporaries praised the book for being more straightforward in comparison to his other books.
Will They or Won't They?: They don't—Morris comes to see her when they are both approaching middle-age after failing to hit it big in the west. Catherine says that she does not hate him, but has no interest in having any kind of relationship, with him or anyone.
The Heiress uses most of the tropes above, in addition to:
Calling the Old Man Out: As part of her development into a more assertive person, Catherine calls her father to task for his awful treatment of her and then some, even calling him on his bluff to disown her.
The Ghost: In a sense, Catherine's mother. Though she's already long-dead at the start of the film (making her a Posthumous Character) there is also a small framed photograph of her that many characters pick up and admire. The audience never gets to see it, leaving her physical appearance up to the imagination. The only thing we're told of her appearance is that, unlike Catherine, she was "fair".
Last Request: While Catherine is sitting outside one day, Maria the maid rushes to her side, telling her that her father is succumbing to his illness and his final wish is to see Catherine one more time. All she says is, "I'm sure he does. Too late, Maria."
Pragmatic Adaptation: Most of the changes in the story were carried over from the play, and were made arguably due to being more dramatically interesting:
Due to studio mandated changes in Morris's character, instead of what he does in the book, the night they are supposed to marry, he tells her he will come for her in a carriage. She eagerly waits all night for him, but he never comes. Less openly malicious than what he does in the part, but arguably even more traumatizing for Catherine.
The issue of the will which drove a lot of the plot is handled differently, too. Dr. Sloper does not have it in his heart to change his will, and Catherine gets everything when he dies.
Additionally, while in the book Catherine becomes detached from her father, in the movie it becomes a clear hatred, even refusing to see him on his deathbed. Her disposition overall after her experience is colder than what was portrayed in the book, and ironically, more clever.
The answer to Catherine and Morris's Will They or Won't They? is the same, but it is played differently: When Morris comes to see her, she actually does act as if she wants to rekindle their romance. She tells him she wants to marry that night, and tells him to leave and get a carriage while she gets her things ready. Morris comes back with the carriage and knocks on Catherine's door... but no one ever answers.
"The Reason You Suck" Speech: Dr. Sloper's Break the Cutie tirade against Catherine is much more direct and dripping with sarcasm and contempt, telling her flat-out that she is plain, boring, and would only be valued by anyone for her money.
Sugar and Ice Personality: The personality Catherine develops by the end of the story; she is perfectly friendly and jovial with people she likes—with her father and Lavinia however, she is a pure Ice Queen.