The play, and Washington Square, the Henry James novel on which it’s based, are about a plain young woman who is very rich and her father, a brilliant doctor who prevents her from marrying a charming fortune hunter named Morris Townsend. Dr. Sloper, a Jamesian monster more concerned with the rightful disposition of his fortune than with his daughter’s happiness, ties up the money so that Catherine won’t get it if she marries Townsend. Townsend, predictably, heads for the hills. Catherine, who had believed in his love, is devastated.
In the book, the doctor eventually dies and leaves Catherine with an income that is adequate but not, he thinks, sufficient to entice Townsend to return. He misjudges, and Townsend does return to the now middle-aged Catherine. She no longer feels the hurt but knows herself to be broken because of it, and rebuffs Townsend because it is what has to be done. Then she goes back to her embroidery.
The Catherine of the play is a stronger, more assertive woman. When the doctor dies (this time, shortly after the broken engagement) and Townsend returns, Catherine sets him up to believe that she will marry him and that he will have the money, only to disappoint him in the same way he had disappointed her.
The novel’s Catherine is destroyed by Townsend’s betrayal, but the play’s Catherine is less fragile, more confident, and will not be destroyed. There is no “The Heiress II,” so we don’t know what happens to Catherine, but I’m pretty sure she finds happiness and lives to a ripe old age.
I wasn’t in the room sixty-five years ago, when the wife-and-husband team of Ruth and Augustus Goetz wrote the script, but I can picture it. “We have to show Catherine’s backbone early on,” Ruth says to Augustus. Or maybe Augustus says it to Ruth. Either way, they put their heads together on what kind of scene would show just how different their Catherine is from James’s Catherine.
The scene they settle on is the one in which we first meet Catherine, telling her aunt, her father’s sister, about the Hospital Committee meeting she attended earlier in the day:
Catherine: Some of the women are so foolish that they are funny. They think it ill-bred to know anything about food, so they are useless on the Committee. One girl asked me today if veal was the front or hind part of the cow.
Mrs. Penniman: What did you tell her?
Catherine: Well, Aunt, I told her the truth. I said it was a nursing calf, and just when it was most adorable, most touching … we eat it!
That’s the official script and, although I’m reluctant to trust my memory of a play I saw almost twenty years ago, I could swear that, in that version, Catherine said, “We kill it and eat it.” And she said it with some relish.
The fact that I remember the scene is a testament to its effectiveness. There’s nothing like a willingness to be matter-of-fact about killing adorable creatures to establish strength and substance.
Pigs, I’m here to tell you, are adorable creatures.
As of two days ago, we have three: one for us and two for friends. They are, all three, adorable. We are going to raise them until they’re something north of 200 pounds, and then we are going to kill them and eat them.
I’ve been warned not to name them. I’ve been warned to keep it always in mind that we’re raising them for food. I’ve been warned to not become too attached to them. And I think these warnings, clearly well-intentioned, are misguided – for two reasons.
First is what we owe the pigs, which are smart, social animals. They thrive on the company of each other, and of the people who keep them. I’ve been a pig owner for less than 48 hours, so I can’t vouch for this, but I’m given to understand that a pig’s relationship with people is much like a dog’s. Withholding affection does a disservice to an animal connected to us, and withholding it in the hope that it will help us weather the day that the animal dies is, I think, selfish.
My great-uncle Frank, on whose farm my mother spent childhood summers, believed that loving an animal was part of a farmer’s duty, and that hardening yourself to your livestock was a failure of stewardship. Part of giving an animal the best life you can is allowing your emotions to be invested in its well-being.
Hardening is also a slippery slope. It can start with refusing to name your pigs, or to feed them treats by hand, or to spend time in the pen with them. It can end with factory farms and gestation crates.
But this isn’t just about what we owe the pigs. It’s about the kind of people we want to be. Hardening doesn’t hurt only the hardenee; it also hurts the hardener. Withholding love from something in the hopes that its death will hurt less doesn’t seem like a strategy for a rich, fulfilling life. You risk becoming the kind of person who uses gestation crates.
I know, going in, that the day we kill these pigs will be very hard. I will be sad and I will cry. But the prospect of steeling myself against their piggy charm every day between now and then is intolerable. I will names these pigs, I will feed them treats by hand, I will spend time in the pen with them. I will love them, and then I will kill them and eat them.
There are people who believe that eating meat but being unwilling to kill is hypocritical, and I don’t think that’s right. Although I have killed some of my own meat, I don’t believe it’s necessary for moral consistency. You can believe that meat-eating is moral but prefer someone else to do the killing, assuming that someone is willing to oblige.
But there’s something you can’t do. You can’t look away. You can’t be squishy or squeamish about the adorable creatures that are killed for your consumption, and then consume them. You can be sad. You can cry. But you can’t say, “Awww, they’re so cute!” and then close your eyes until someone else makes the problem go away. Ethical meat eating begins with an open-eyed acknowledgement of what we do to turn animals into dinner, and I’m finding out just how much fortitude that takes when you’re nose-to-snout with an adorable creature.
I don’t know whether Ruth and Augustus Goetz ever raised pigs, but they certainly understood the problem. Of all the issues under the sun, they chose this one to establish their Catherine Sloper as a woman of strength and substance.
I think I would have liked her.