The Heiress (1949): The Garden Muse

Inanimate objects seem to observe the main characters in movies, especially in dark, brooding, period dramas. In The Heiress (1949), Dr. Sloper’s late wife is a constant presence, not only in conversation, but in her portrait, her un-played piano, even in the color cherry red. These objects do not recall happy memories for the family; bittersweet, perhaps. These items haunt the widower and his overly shy young adult daughter, Catherine, who rarely make a move without “consulting” the vaunted image of a woman long dead.

Another, more passive, inanimate character, one that does not seem to impose its will on the family’s daily life is the garden muse - a brick archway with seating that leads from the backyard garden to the alleyway. The muse stands as an unwavering sentinel watching important story points.

The muse pops up three times in the film. 
  1. When the audience first meets the heiress as she buys fish in the alley, to her father’s chagrin
  2. When forbidden lover Morris comes to whisk her away for an elopement that doesn’t happen
  3. When  saying goodbye to visiting relatives whose lives have moved on  since we last saw them, while hers remains the same.

I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the meaning of this garden muse.  “C‘mon, Java,” I said to myself, “Not everything in a film has to have deep meaning. Sometimes an archway is just an archway; you‘re Bogdanoviching again.” Then  it hit me (I hope you‘re not eating) - the muse is a symbolic womb.

Bear with me.

In that first scene father disapproves of the heiress carrying fish like a servant. There is no reason to have the first father-daughter conversation in the garden, but it‘s there with the archway framing the two characters. Her visible self-reproach for disappointing her father is quite childlike. Dr. Sloper - the adult - walks down the alley. Catherine - the child- reenters the house.

The next archway scene involves Catherine and forbidden fiancĂ© Morris finding shelter from the rain in the muse, giving birth to the idea of elopement. They share the passion and excitement of teens.  He leaves promising to return for her. It’s yet another scene of the other person - the less naive one - using the muse to venture away, and the cloistered heiress doing the opposite. Ultimately, he never returns for her.

The third and final muse scene occurs years later. Catherine, still single, has said goodbye to her cousin and her cousin’s young children, watching them drive out of the alley. Relatives have invited her for a visit but she always declines. Poised, she walks silently back to the house, slowly passing under the archway and gathering toys strewn about, almost like a mom. There is no doubt that she has emerged from her trials a woman.

However, she never leaves Washington Square, rarely ventures beyond the house, doesn‘t go far from that muse. She’s forever gestating.

Just a thought. What do you think?

See Also:
The Heiress (1949): Her Mother's Presence
The Heiress (1949): Why Not Disinherit Catherine?


  1. Java, I think you are reaching here. I just think it's a good framing device. LOL! Enjoyed your interpretation, though.

  2. Oh. LOL! I thought it might be a bit much. I had to try; they just kept coming back to it! I kept thinking, "What are you trying to tell me, William Wyler? I don't get it."

    Ah, well. It's a lovely frame. :)

  3. Java,
    I hate to admit this but I tried to watch "The Heiress" years ago and I just couldn't get through it. I decided to watch it recently when it aired on TCM and again, I got 30 minutes in and I was so darn bored I couldn't finish it.
    I adore Olivia but I'm not a fan of Clift! Perhaps the script was lacking even though I do enjoy a good period piece.
    Give me Olivia with Errol and I can watch all day!
    You're review was so well written and informative that I hate how I feel about the film.

  4. Page, Don't feel bad. There are films and actors (e.g. Jack Lemmon) that I'm supposed to like but just cannot embrace like everyone else does.

    The heiress is a woman scorned by a handsome rake. That's really all you need to know. Let your imagination run wild with it and you'll have it about right.

    It's great because it's realistic.


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