Angels, Ghosts, and Fairy Tales: Some Seasonally-Appropriate Thoughts Concerning Sentimentality

Christmas, among its many other commercial functions, is television time.  Switch on the TV at any given hour of the day, and you’re bound to stumble across a Beloved Holiday ClassicTM playing on this channel or that.  A Charlie Brown Christmas still rakes in huge ratings during its twice-yearly showing on ABC, A Christmas Story airs more or less continuously on various channels for the whole month of December, and some version of A Christmas Carol is always easy to find (I’m partial to the 1984 George C. Scott version myself).

One such movie, perhaps the king of holiday television rotation, and which I happened to see for the first time only this year, is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.  My dear father, who makes my cultural education his responsibility, decided that I had gone ignorant of this icon of American cinema quite long enough.  I went into my first viewing knowing only two things: 1) the general gist of its plot, which I gathered from a Muppets parody I had seen on television many years earlier; and 2) its reputation for sappy, dab-your-eyes-with-a-Kleenex sentimentality.  I expected to be entertained, but not terribly moved.

It's_a_Wonderful_Life (1)
Get those tissues ready.

As so often happens at Christmas, I didn’t get what I expected.

If anything, It’s a Wonderful Life strikes me, not as a feel-good holiday greeting card of a movie, but as a robust portrait of reality, failures and frustrations included.  But this is hardly a novel observation. I’ve seen other reviewers try to defend the film by claiming that it’s actually terrifying, “asphyxiating,” or a stark depiction of mid-twentieth-century domestic discontent.  Perhaps they’re right; there is something sadly raw and honest about the scene where George Bailey, staring financial oblivion in the face after years of frustrated personal ambitions, finally breaks down and verbally abuses his wife and children.  The fact that it’s simply a setup for the movie’s happy resolution doesn’t diminish its unsettling power.

But what disturbs me far more are the lengths to which some of the film’s fans will go in insisting that It’s a Wonderful Life is a good film precisely because it isn’t really a feel-good picture, and the unspoken assumption that anything reeking of that uplifting holiday spirit must be sentimental claptrap.  So, rather than write a comprehensive review of this seventy-year-old film, I thought I’d take some time this Christmas season to reflect on the nature of what we call “sentimentality.”

Just what is it about this innocent little cinematic escapade that the Grinches of the world take issue with? Is it the outpouring of human kindness that (spoilers!) comes to George’s rescue in the end?  Perhaps, but I suspect not, not after the movie spends so much time – the first two-thirds of its running time, in fact – showing us how George Bailey sacrifices himself for his community, deferring his dreams time and time again, growing steadily discontent so that his little town can prosper.  When (spoilers!) all his friends come crashing through his front door in waves, offering their own resources to bail him out of his financial jam, an attentive viewer can point to any face in that crowd and give an account of what George has done for them.  It’s clearly intended as a “feel-good” moment, but, like the bells that signal Clarence’s ascent to angelhood, it rings true.  One would have to be the meanest of misanthropes not to find something of the truth in this (purely human) moment of salvation.

Last Scene
“No man is a failure who has friends,” indeed.

No; if any part of It’s a Wonderful Life could be accused of fudging reality to pull the viewer’s heartstrings, it’s the explicitly supernatural aid that rescues George Bailey from despair.

Frank Capra is hardly the only storyteller to use this trope.  Ghosts seem to be a particularly popular device: consider ye that other holiday classic, A Christmas Carol.  Perhaps the spirits who visit old Ebenezer are all dreams or visions, but they certainly don’t arise from the closed system of Scrooge’s sinful, miserly brain.  Nor is it only in Christmas tales that the dead show up to provide hope or reconciliation for the living; the list ranges from semi-classic pieces of Americana like Field of Dreams to little-known anime series like AnoHana: The Flower We Saw That Day (both of which, like It’s a Wonderful Life, I saw for the first time earlier this year).

I doubt it’s the presence of supernatural elements in these stories that anyone would quibble with.  I doubt that it’s even the psychological and emotional effect that these elements have on the characters that gets these stories accused of sentimentality. Take AnoHana, for instance – a lovely little eleven-episode series I was lucky enough to have recommended to me by BeneathTheTangles. (Its full title in Japanese is Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai, which was mercifully shortened for the international release.)  The premise is simple: five years after the untimely death of their childhood playmate, Menma, five friends – now all teenagers – are drawn back together by the sudden appearance of Menma’s cheerful, friendly ghost.  Like It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s a premise ripe for heartstring-tugging drama and sentimentality alike.

Menma’s on the bottom-right. (Notice how she’s the only one smiling.)

The central conceit of AnoHana is that ghost-Menma’s persistent probing into her living friends’ affairs gradually reveals the deep interpersonal issues (envy, self-loathing, the like) that these characters have carried, quiet and festering, since the death of their childhood friend.  As you can imagine, it’s a painful process, and the series does succeed in painting a compelling portrait of ordinary human friendship, adolescence, and bereavement as all their ugly, unresolved tensions come bubbling to the surface.  The ghost did not create these feelings.  They existed in the world of the story without her interference; her only task (at first) is to give the characters an excuse to talk about them.  Indeed, if the creators had been willing to employ some mild contrivances, they could’ve told a moving growing-up narrative without the use of an otherworldly plot device.

The problem, of course, is that the story would’ve had a very different ending – probably a much sadder one, as Menma’s role in the narrative doesn’t end there.  And this brings me to my main point.  It’s not the fact that these narratives employ supernatural powers as plot devices that gets them called “sentimental.”  Rather, it’s the notion that some force, without prompting, can come from outside the material world and change the world for the better, I suspect, that the cynics tend to sneer at.  The divine rescue, a classical trope, just doesn’t fare well among today’s audiences.

Clever writing can disguise the importance of divine intervention.  Clarence doesn’t drop a sack of money into George Bailey’s hands; it’s the hard-earned friendship of Bedford Falls that saves him from ruin and disgrace.  But George’s acceptance of this gift, and his changed perspective, are only possible because heaven intervened first.  A sort of dual salvation has to take place: if Clarence hadn’t made his miraculous appearance at the opportune moment, George Bailey would never have had the chance to witness the (purely human and mundane) powers of community and charity.  A like thing occurs in AnoHana, though I won’t spoil it here.  By these means, both stories escape accusations of relying on deus ex machina resolutions, but both still depend on explicitly supernatural intervention for their happy endings.

Here, I suspect, is where the more cynical audiences draw the line.  Most consumers of media will agree that a good story ought to reflect reality on at least some level, and for many, divine intervention is a violation too great to countenance.  In the story of Real Life, salvation, if it comes at all, certainly cannot come from beyond the world.  It’s a closed system, after all.  Breaking the rules of reality is acceptable if it reveals some deeper truth about the world-as-we-perceive-it, but bringing in the supernatural to rescue characters who couldn’t otherwise save themselves?  That’s just cheating.

The reason I find this position unsatisfying is that it assumes a meta-narrative, a vision of reality, which I simply don’t share.

Complaining that a story fails to reflect reality always raises the question what we mean by “reality.”  Given my own convictions, I’m reminded (predictably) of J.R.R. Tolkien and his notion of the eucatastrophe – the “sudden, joyous turn” at the end of most fairy tales, the miraculous moment of triumph that comes out of nowhere when all hope seems lost, the happily-ever-after dependent on some miraculous intervention in the story by an outside force.  For Tolkien, these endings don’t constitute a shameless fudging of reality to make the reader burst into happy tears.  Rather, they’re echoes of the ultimate reality – the final eucatastrophe, the reconciliation between God and a fallen humanity – that concludes the Christian meta-narrative.  Fairy tales, he would contend, aren’t literally true in the manner of realist fiction, but they nonetheless convey a truth.

Sleeping Beauty
One of the classics. (Illustration by Gustave Dore)

Looked at from a Christian perspective, the “sentimental” stories of Christmas ghosts and angels may communicate something profoundly true which purely materialistic stories lack.  It’s a Wonderful Life and AnoHana certainly aren’t “realism” in the commonly-accepted sense, in that not many people (on the whole) claim to have been visited by ghosts or saved from suicide by friendly former clockmakers.  But by taking a step back and examining these stories not as slavish recreations of lived experience, but as symbolic gestures towards grander truths, we might find something that educates our imaginations less like a realist novel and more like an allegorical painting – something that gives us a vivid and colorful glimpse beyond the darkened glass, if I may borrow the phrase from 1 Corinthians.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, goodness is rewarded. Prayers are answered.  Angels get their wings.  No man is a failure who has friends.  “Christmas spirit” is alive and kicking.  This certainly isn’t the world we perceive with our senses.  But, ultimately, it’s the world in which Christians believe.  After all, isn’t this holiday (at least, as traditionally practiced by Christians) intended to honor the ultimate intrusion of the otherworldly into our mundane human sphere?  Isn’t it a celebration of the greatest supernatural deus ex machina of all, which interrupts the closed system of human sin and gives us hope for a happy ending beyond imagination?

(Those are rhetorical questions.  The answer is yes.)

Of course, a materialist who watches It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, AnoHana, or any similarly eucatastrophic story, may justly protest that the authors have failed to represent reality in any meaningful way.  Fair enough.  Such audiences prefer stories that ultimately depict a different world than the one George Bailey lives in.  Plenty such stories exist.  Some of them (King Lear, No Country for Old Men, and Tolkien’s own The Children of Húrin come to mind) can be mighty useful for informing the way we imagine the world-as-we-perceive-it.

But for believers, there hardly seems a better time than Christ’s Mass to reflect on the “sentimental” stories, which enrich our imaginations by giving us vivid little glimpses of His story – of the chapters that have already taken place, and the still better chapters that, we profess, are yet to come.


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