Moira Donegan at n+1:
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.