By Sarah McCullough Cornwell
This is the second post in a series in which I explore what classic film actresses in iconic roles can teach us — and, more particularly, my fast-growing daughter — about the seven classic virtues. These posts follow the order of the virtues that Dante encounters in his journey up through Purgatorio. The first post was on humility and Ingrid Bergman’s character in Casablanca. This post focuses on kindness and what the spirited and witty Jean Arthur can teach us about this virtue. Though she has many memorable roles (I highly recommend You Can’t Take It with You), I will focus on her character in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
I want to establish first what I mean by kindness and its opposing vice, envy, and what their relationship is. Kindness is a form generosity, to lovingly give of yourself to enhance another’s happiness. Kindness is the virtue that can defeat envy, the second deadly sin Dante encounters on his way through the levels of purgatory. At its core, envy is to begrudge someone his happiness to the point of outright hatred.
Envy is not jealousy, though the two sometimes get lumped together. Jealousy is to love something and want it for yourself. Jealousy is not necessarily a bad thing. Its root is love and so long as what you love is yours to have then jealousy can be good. God is jealous. He loves us and wants us for himself, and as we belong to him this is all very good.
The root of envy is hatred. To be envious is to hate someone’s happiness. It is a total perversion of the good. The happiness in another’s life causes you pain, and the misfortune in another’s life causes you great happiness. Envy is completely devoid of love. Dante employs the example of Cain and Abel here, for the root of Cain killing his brother came from Cain’s envy of Abel, or hatred of his brother’s favor with God.
What does Dante have to say about kindness as a means of defeating this kind of evil? In Purgatorio, those who suffered the sin of envy in life must rely on others. These miserable souls have their eyes sewn shut and they are propped up against one another such that they are forced to rely on their fellow man. You cannot wish ill for another without, in fact, harming yourself. That is, they are put into a position in which they must love another in order to love themselves. In our world, we may be able to forget this great commandment.
The world can shield us — blind us — to the fact that when we harm another, we harm ourselves. In this world we are anesthetized, so if we do cut off our nose to spite our face, we may be numb to the pain that it causes the rest of our body. Dante’s imagined punishment makes the repercussions for actions of the envious much more clear. If you do not act kindly to another, not only will the other suffer, but you will as well. Your fates are tied together.
At first blush, envy may seem like something that only applies to characters in long-ago narratives, or to poorly drawn villains who seem to hate for no reason and twirl their mustaches and cackle when ill befalls the hero. But I want to draw a connection between envy and another state of soul that is widespread in our society. Consider that villains look quite different when the word cynicism is substituted for the word envy. We can see that, unlike jealousy, envy and cynicism are, in fact, intimately related — cynics both delight in the tragic and militantly resist joy. And we can use the example of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to further illustrate this point.
In the movie, Jimmy Stewart plays one of his quintessential aww-shucks roles as a young local scout master who is asked by Claude Rains, an old family friend and respected senator, to become a first-time senator and join him in representing their state in Washington, D.C. Earnest and naïve, Stewart accepts and soon arrives in Washington like one who just fell off the back of a turnip truck, full of genuine enthusiasm to do good.
Stewart doesn’t initially know that Rains, his fellow senator and friend, only sought to have him elected because Rains assumed Stewart’s naiveté would make him a convenient puppet whom Rains could count on to support a bill that stinks of corruption with anyone who has a nose for it. Rains was once like Stewart, but over the years had succumbed to the shady backroom dealing of D.C. and had fallen in with a grasping businessman played by Edward Arnold.
Upon his arrival in D.C., Stewart is quickly delivered to his secretary, Jean Arthur, whose job is essentially to babysit Stewart and make sure he doesn’t poke his nose where it doesn’t belong. Arthur is well versed in the politics of Washington and she is brash and cynical.
Cynicism allows a person to take a superior attitude, as Arthur does in her sarcastic (and amusing) way of explaining to Stewart what happens to a bill as it makes its way through the legislative branch. When Stewart describes his idea for a bill to reserve land for a boy’s camp, Arthur doesn’t offer her realistic view of how challenging it is to get a bill passed to help work to overcome those obstacles. Instead she explains the difficulties in order to shut down Stewart’s starry-eyed ambitions, and she is annoyed when that doesn’t work.
It would be much easier for Arthur to let Stewart flounder. However, over time, she comes to care for and support him. And it is her kindness, in the end, that saves him. As Stewart bumbles along with his bill, he unwittingly bumbles right into the middle of Rains and Arnold’s graft scheme. When Stewart confronts Rains, Rains tells him that this is what it means to live in a “man’s world,” that once he used to be like Stewart, but he had to compromise to serve his constituents. Nothing is more pleasing to a cynic than seeing an idealistic person’s hopes destroyed.
There are two key cynics in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Arthur and Rains. When faced with the choice of whether to build Stewart up or tear him down, Arthur ultimately choses to build him up. Just when he is about to quit and prove the cynics right, she ties her happiness to his to the point that she can no longer feel satisfied if he is brought low.
Rains orchestrates a plot to malign Stewart’s good name, and after being hit hard by a smear campaign, Stewart seems pretty convinced that ideals are a bunch of hooey and cannot stand up to compromised men like Rains and the political machine backing him. Though Arthur had originally called his ideals hooey, she can’t bring herself to see Stewart turn into a cynic like her. She assures Stewart that his ideals are worthwhile and urges him to keep fighting. She not only convinces him but convinces herself as well. Her kindness won out over cynicism.
Rains chooses the opposite and seeks to tear Stewart down. We may be tempted to ask the question: why can’t Rains be nice like Jean Arthur?
Here we would be mistaken. Arthur wasn’t nice. Niceness and kindness aren’t the same thing. To be nice is to say one thing even if you believe another. It requires no generosity whatsoever. Arthur wouldn’t need to change her cynical nature if she just said nice things to Stewart. She also wouldn’t have been effective because her words would have been hollow. She had to believe them herself if she was going to save Stewart from despair.
In contrast, Claude Rains couldn’t be kind because if he allowed himself to believe that he could serve his constituents without corrupting compromises, then he would need to grapple with the poor choices that he had made that were no longer justifiable. Ostensibly, Rains was trying to destroy Stewart’s bill because it exposed his corruption. In reality, Rains needed Stewart to fail to prove himself correct about what it meant to live in a “man’s world.”
It is appropriate that the virtue of kindness is the next step after the virtue of humility in Purgatorio. It takes great humility to put aside the notion of “every man for himself,” the “I’ll get mine and you get yours,” mentality. In the church, we tie our fate together and then nail it to the cross. When one of us stumbles it hurts the rest of the body, and that is not a good thing. Arthur realized that and changed, generously allowing not only someone to lean on her, but for her to lean on him. It is a lesson I am still learning, but the seeds of it were planted with watching Jean Arthur’s characters when I was a child. I hope that similar seeds are planted with my daughter and may continue to take root and grow long into her adulthood.
Sarah McCullough Cornwell is a recovering Lutheran who joined the Episcopal Church in 2011. She holds a BFA in dance and a MA in International Humanitarian Assistance. She lives with her husband and four children in the Hudson Valley north of New York City.