Demythologizing “Pollyana”: The Transformative Power of Pain in Christian Humanism

David Shasha

Posted Aug 30, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Demythologizing “Pollyana” (Walt Disney, 1960): The Transformative Power of Pain in Christian Humanism

by David Shasha

The world we live in is frequently a site of great contention and struggle.  The struggle between human beings often leads to the ascension of the wealthy over the poor; forcing a hierarchical structuring of society.  Those who control the material resources that permit human beings to survive and develop can dominate others in a way that requires obsequiousness on the part of those being dominated.

Morality is translated into terms that are acceptable to those at the very top of the societal pyramid.  When those elites force other to conform to norms that lack compassion and joy, our culture is bereft of hope and optimism.

The word “Pollyana” has become synonymous with a naïve and uncritical optimism.  Because of the film adaptations of the 1913 novel by Eleanor Porter, “Pollyana” has entered our American vernacular as a cliché that signifies a relentlessly positive attitude bereft of a reflective critical sensibility.

Upon further examination, the clichés that have been generated by the “Pollyana” complex do not fully explain the true nature of the morality that the story puts forward.

In the 1960 Walt Disney film (a silent version was filmed in 1920 with Mary Pickford) starring a very young Hayley Mills and a mature Jane Wyman, the story is presented in a fairly straightforward fashion: A poor orphan is saved from being sent to the orphanage by her rich and powerful Aunt Polly (played by the great Wyman).  We soon come to learn that Aunt Polly is the lone scion of the illustrious Harrington family which more or less owns the town that has been named after it.  She lives by herself in a big mansion with a large retinue of servants and exerts an undue influence in the town that mirrors her misanthropic asceticism and lack of human empathy. 

Aunt Polly is an extremely powerful woman who plays by what she believes are the proper rules of the game.  She has adopted an understanding of tradition and social etiquette that allows for little if any human emotion.  Early on in the film we see her barking orders about proper behavior to the sweet little girl whose ebullience is becoming a major point of contention.  The townspeople and the servants in the Harrington mansion are all what we might call “sourpusses”; there is a fatalism that has been generated in the town’s social network that bespeaks a harsh cruelty which emanates directly from Aunt Polly.

It is not simply that Pollyana flashes a smile at the townspeople and changes everything, as the cliché goes.

No, Pollyana’s joyfulness and optimism forces those around her to confront their own negativity and through that confrontation come to see the damage they are doing to themselves and to each other.

The dialectic of the story begins with the acknowledgment that things in Harrington are not as they should be.  As each of the townspeople comes to meet Pollyana they begin to learn things about themselves hitherto concealed from plain sight.  Before Pollyana’s optimism and joy can have any effect on them, they must look inside themselves and learn what they are doing wrong.

Central to Pollyana’s method is to teach the community members the various coping mechanisms that she had to learn in order to survive as a child in a poor minister’s family.  Growing up, Pollyana had very little material comfort and had to do without the things that many other children take for granted.  Things like toys and ice cream were luxuries out of the family’s limited reach.  Looking for the good in things was a moral adjustment that the minister father taught Pollyana.  Rather than lament and become depressed over what she did not have, Pollyana was taught to appreciate the things that she did have.

Such a strategy can easily lead to a cloying and overly sentimental emotionalism that could deflect us from our own social problems, but in the Christian Humanism that frames the tale of “Pollyana” we see the characters adopt the strategy as a means to redress social inequity and to improve the quality of their own lives.

At an early point in the film we come to realize that Pollyana represents an allegory of Jesus whose mission was to uplift people out of their pain and misery through his own personal sacrifice.  Though classical Christian doctrine sometimes loses the thread of this essentially humanistic way of seeing, the Jesus story presents a truly daring intervention in the human condition. 

In the famous discourse of Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus recapitulates the Golden Rule in the dramatic vision of the Final Judgment.  In this vision of the Divine Throne Jesus teaches his followers that they will be treated in a manner appropriate to how they have treated the poor and the weak:

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:40)

Of course, the uplifting rhetoric of this magisterial passage is taken from the classical Jewish tradition and its humanistic ethics. 

Most prominently, we recall the formulations of the Golden Rule in the many statements of Hillel the Elder.  In the Pirkei Abot, Ethics of the Fathers, Hillel states:

Be of the disciples of Aaron, one that loves mankind, and brings them nigh to the Torah. (M. Abot 1:12) 

His most vigorous articulation of this central principle was recounted in the Babylonian Talmud:

What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn. (B. Shabbat 31a) 

The Golden Rule is something so obvious as to be forgotten in the daily grind of life.  We must be reminded of it on a regular basis by religious thinkers.

Pollyana arrives to a town in crisis.  People do not like one another and are frenziedly trying to carry out the wishes of one woman; a woman who is not at all happy and who does not inspire in people a spirit of love and generosity. 

Aunt Polly is the very opposite of Pollyana; she hordes her great wealth and refuses to give freely of herself to others.  The simple plot of the story revolves around a crisis that ensues when the pipes of the local orphanage break and a debate takes place whether the town needs a new building for the poor orphans.

Quickly, Aunt Polly marshals her considerable forces to fight the town’s mayor, played by the great Donald Crisp.  The mayor is sick and tired and fed up with the one-woman rule that has imprisoned the town.  He and his nephew, a good-looking doctor who was once in love with Wyman but was put off by her haughtiness and insufferable arrogance, elect to independently start a project to build a new orphanage.  While trying to organize the project they begin to run up against the malicious spirit of fear and apathy that has permeated the town because of Wyman’s mighty iron fist.

Up till then Pollyana has exerted her influence in a very easygoing and gentle manner.  As she comes across individuals she is able to mildly point out to them that they are not nurturing their own spirits.  In a meeting with a bed-ridden hypochondriac played by the wonderful Agnes Moorehead, Pollyana shows the woman that she is preoccupied with death as opposed to enjoying the blessings of her life. 

It is not that Pollyana is mindlessly smiling her way into peoples’ lives; her optimism is strengthened by an engagement with the real problems in their lives.  Before Pollyana’s optimism can truly take effect, her patients must look into themselves and face the problems that they have created by their sorry behavior.

As Moorehead’s character is fretting over the purchase of a casket for her funeral, Pollyana expresses – not joy – but a critical attitude that forces Moorehead to reconsider her hypochondria and misanthropy. 

Pollayana also befriends a young boy living at the orphanage and the two of them get into some mischief when they trespass at the home of a local curmudgeon played by Adolph Menjou.  Again, Pollyana is able to turn Menjou around when he comes to realize that he has isolated himself from the world by turning away from his fellow man.

Most importantly, the effort to build the new orphanage allows us to engage deeply with the local minister, played by the recently-deceased Karl Malden in a startling performance.  More than any of the other townspeople, Malden’s minister has internalized Wyman’s misanthropy and disdain for existential joy.  We witness both he and Wyman sitting down to prepare his Sunday sermon.  In this preparation we see Wyman instructing him to lard his discourse with fire and brimstone Scriptural passages, just the sort of fatalism and illiberality that Wyman favors.

As the town warms to the idea of making a fundraising bazaar to get the money for the new orphanage, the minister holds firmly to his policy of militant non-intervention.  In other words, Aunt Polly has bought out Malden by making him ineffectual and apathetic to the real human needs of the community. 

In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, Malden is shown barking and wailing at his congregation from the Church’s high pulpit.  In severe and unsparing tones, the minister yells and gesticulates madly at a crowd that is clearly alienated by him.  In the end, Malden is simply projecting the misanthropic nature of Aunt Polly and reasserting her total control over a town that she considers her own.

It could not be any clearer that the Golden Rule is absent from Harrington and because of this the town is in a serious crisis.

The critical moment in the story is when Malden meets with Pollyana who gets him to see what he is really doing to God’s Word.  Rather than resist the criticism, Malden looks deeply into himself and makes the moral corrections necessary to rejoin the human race.  This is where the story makes a crucial turn for the better.

As she listens to Malden rehearsing his sermon, Pollyana remarks to him that her father often became depressed about his life, but found a way out of his darkness by looking at the human joy inherent to the Scriptures.  Rather than dwelling on the crimes of mankind, her father sought to engage others with the good that humanity can do.

But what is critical in this meeting between the minister and the young girl is that the two sides of the dialectic are presented.  In order for Malden to understand what it means to do Good he needs to come to terms with the mistakes that he has made and to acknowledge why those mistakes have come about. 

It is the realization that he has become a pawn in Aunt Polly’s game that allows him to return to the Wor(l)d of God.  The very fire and brimstone he is preaching is not what he truly believes will help the people, but is just another tool that Wyman uses to control the town.

In the film’s penultimate scene, a scene that inverts and reverses the earlier sequence of a wild and out of control minister yelling at his congregants, Malden takes Pollyana’s criticisms to heart and preaches to his audience the joyful and happy verses of Scripture.  More importantly, he ends his service with an announcement for the fundraising bazaar that is scheduled to take place that evening.  Previously, as we stated, the minister did not take sides in the battle between Aunt Polly and the town – he would not make the announcement of a fundraiser that Aunt Polly did not countenance.

But now the minister, filled with the humanity and compassion instilled in his soul by the kind little girl, steps out of his trap and proudly states that he will be attending the event and that others should follow his lead, thus ensuring its success.

With this statement of affirmation for the Good, Malden breaks the malignant spell that Wyman has exerted over the town for too many years.  It is a spark of light in a world of darkness that startles everyone sitting in the Church.  Up to that shocking moment, the town knew Malden to be in Wyman’s hip pocket; a “Yes” man who could not express his own ideas and emotions.  The minister has now become a force for the Good as opposed to being a religious figure who reinforced a corrupt status quo.

Implicitly, “Pollyana” conducts a vigorous polemic against religious hypocrisy and lifeless formalism.  In the gracious spirit of Christian Humanism the tale teaches us the power of resistance and militancy.  Rather than affirming mindlessness and conformity to a vain optimism – as the cliché would have it – “Pollyana” affirms the struggle of humanity to create a better world. 

In the grand tradition of the classic texts of Scripture it does not shy away from presenting the ugliness of the world.  Pollyana’s optimism is hard-won and reflects her own courage and strength as a human being.  She is not simply some automaton who has no critical sense.  Echoing the figure of Jesus, she is wise beyond her years and her naivety belies an inner conviction that life is cruel and vicious and yet we must adopt strategies of coping with the pain we face.

Too much of contemporary religion has become about conformity and the inability to achieve the Golden Rule because of selfishness.  The clichés of “Pollyana” have been translated into a spiritual one-upmanship and a narcissism that has turned us all into Aunt Pollys rather than Pollyanas.

The townspeople learn to become fully human by throwing off the yoke of their oppressor.  Like the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, the citizens of Harrington come to see that they are living in a prison of their own making.  By allowing Aunt Polly to tyrannize them, they come to understand that they have violated the most precious value that God has given us: the value of compassion.

Such a value is a central part of the Golden Rule; a value system that is wonderfully stated by Karen Armstrong in her wonderful book The Great Transformation:

The Axial sages put the abandonment of selfishness and the spirituality of compassion at the top of their agenda.  For them, religion was the Golden Rule.  They concentrated on what people were supposed to transcend from – their greed, egotism, hatred, and violence.  What they were going to transcend to was not an easily defined place or person, but a state of beatitude that was inconceivable to the unenlightened person, who was still trapped in the toils of the ego principle.  If people concentrated on what they hoped to transcend to and become dogmatic about it, they could develop an inquisitorial stridency that was, in Buddhist terminology, “unskillful.”

In our lives we are often faced with pain and difficulty.  It is the coward’s way out to simply compromise their values and allow the vain and wicked people to triumph.

Pollyana does not permit herself to allow evil to triumph.  She is truly a revolutionary who works with others to overturn those who hold society in a crushing vise.  She is often quite disapproving of how others behave and how they have killed their own spirits.  Like Hillel the Elder and Jesus, she comes to others with an open heart and with a promise that she will renew their happiness by committing to serve them as a guide to spiritual regeneration. 

“Pollyana” is not just mindless optimism; it is a cautionary tale that, like Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” is about life’s challenges.  It does not sidestep the catastrophic elements of our existence, but faces pain in a way that allows us to see who we really are and what we must do as human beings to create a better society.

The way in which “Pollyana” has been absorbed into American popular culture reflects a deeply flawed distortion of its powerful articulation of the Golden Rule.  The egotistical ministries of so many current religious figures, people like Joel Osteen, Rick Warren and even the media magnate Oprah Winfrey, which purport to promote self-realization, only affirm the predilections of the cruel Aunt Pollys of the world.  We are too quick to create celebrity icons rather than promote selflessness and human dignity.

With the recent death of Michael Jackson – a truly brilliant artist whose good works were mainly self-serving in spite of his pioneering racial inroads, and whose misdeeds reflected a malignant narcissism predicated on material success – we are faced with the questions raised by “Pollyana”:

Will we look inside ourselves and find God, or will we seek more of our own selfish desires? 

Will we serve God, or just serve ourselves? 

Will we help others or will we only look out for “Number One”?

“Pollyana” teaches us that to fulfill our own destiny we must serve others in a way that will allow them to live with dignity and integrity.  We cannot live out our lives in a selfish manner and think that we have improved society with the crumbs that we throw at the poor and needy.  Rich people continue their rampage in our society. 

Michael Jackson, like many rich people, built a massive fortune with a rapacious materialist attitude that took few prisoners.  Covering up his many abuses of others in the business world – standard practice in the elite classes – he blithely wrote checks to charity while living an overly lavish lifestyle. 

But in death he did not leave the world a better place than he found it. 

The poor still suffer and the weak are more disenfranchised than they ever were.  The “real” world remains a vicious and ugly place controlled by the vain and the malicious.  The Pollyanas of the world are crushed in a maelstrom of violence and recrimination.  The gentle ways of Pollyana are snarled at and belittled by the rich and powerful. 

While they have created a simulacrum of goodness and righteousness, the Pious Degenerates of the world violate the most basic principles of the Golden Rule: They refuse to treat others the way that they wish to be treated.  We now live in a world ruled by double standards where the so-called religious leadership is awash in moral vanity and ethical corruption. 

It is incumbent upon us to smash the icons rather than elevating them to a cultural pinnacle.

In a twisted world of failed leaders, Pollyana has been raped and viciously murdered.

We who know all too well the depredations and violence of this world are often tempted to abandon the Golden Rule and the principles articulated by those like Pollyana who challenge others to see themselves as they are in reality and not as some idealized image.

It is incumbent upon us to remember that in Matthew 25 Jesus does not simply recount what it means to do the Good.  He is insistent that we understand the flipside of the Golden Rule; that of selfishness, greed and violence:

You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. (Matthew 25:41-43) 

Those who do not treat others like themselves, those who reject “Love thy Neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18), are damned to perdition.  It is not that we must become clichéd Pollyanas with so much pie in the sky, but must aggressively go out into the world and spread the Golden Rule, the Word of God that teaches us the very elementary value of respecting others and treating them properly.

“Pollyana” has been abused by those who twist its message to suit their own purposes.  It has even been derided by those who have accepted this distortion as the true interpretation of its main theme.  “Pollyana” is often used as a mechanism to suppress those who truly live life in its essential spirit; the spirit of giving and of loving.  Pollyana sits down on Agnes Moorehead’s bed and expresses her serious dissatisfaction with the old lady’s hypochondriac nature and general crabbiness.  She does not smile at her until Moorehead has come to terms with her own misanthropy. 

Pollyana is not always so Pollyanish. 

She knows what she is doing and understands that people cannot be happy until they have accepted their sins against themselves and against others.  This is what the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has called a “difficult freedom”; a freedom that permits us to exalt God by accepting life’s depredations and difficulties.  It is not meant to blunt access to knowledge and acceptance of what harms us; rather it is an attempt to stand up courageously after accepting pain and disappointment.  It means to make the best of what has been given to us, not to exploit others just to get what we want.

As taught by great religious leaders like Hillel the Elder and Jesus, the Golden Rule is a means of self-examination.  We must learn who we are in order to treat others properly.  In the town of Harrington people are unhappy and violate the Golden Rule because they have become corrupted by a single individual.  Once they have shorn themselves of that bad person, they can again bring light to the town. 

And by story’s end, that one person, Aunt Polly, is confronted with her wickedness and must serve out her penance.  Repentance and forgiveness are connected to service; the way that we serve others is a prime indicator of whether we are able to create a truly Good society where people are happy and where the true will of God is expressed. 

Once we acknowledge the wrong we have done, only then we will be able to create, in the words of Jose Faur, a Horizontal Society, where all human beings are equal, and where we can serve each other to discharge our obligations as children of our Creator.