By Sarah McCullough Cornwell
This is the third 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. The second was “Jean Arthur and Virtue of Kindness.”
This post focuses on the virtue of meekness as a countermeasure to wrath, the third vice that Dante encounters in Purgatorio. Donna Reed provides an excellent example of meekness in It’s a Wonderful Life and, like the other women I have written about, beautifully demonstrates how a virtue that can often be characterized as a weakness is in fact far stronger than the vice it opposes.
How do we understand meekness from Dante’s perspective in Purgatorio? Dante gives three examples:
- the Virgin Mary, who patiently listened to Jesus rather than rebuking him after she had been looking for him for three days;
- Peisistratos, a tyrant of ancient Greece who extended merciful understanding to a man who, out of love, had kissed the tyrant’s daughter in public (rather than raining down vengeance as the mother had demanded);
- St. Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, who was stoned to death for his faith and who, even as the stones were being cast against him, extended forgiveness and prayed that this sin not be held against his murderers.
In contrast to these three exemplars of meekness are three wretches whose earthly actions illustrate the ultimate evil consequences of wrath.
- Procne, who after learning that her husband had raped her sister, killed her son, cooked him, and fed him to the rapist;
- Haman, a mighty prince who ordered the slaughter of all Jews in the kingdom after Mordecai would not bow down to him;
- Queen Amata, who falsely believed her favored suitor for her daughter had been killed and took her own life.
All three examples show how anger can be so consuming that it can completely blind us to the horrific consequences that lay beyond the next action, consequences in which the innocent are murdered. Dante makes the blinding effect of anger apparent in that the wrathful must walk around in blinding, acrid smoke.
What then could Donna Reed, and her counterpart Jimmy Stewart, add to this depiction of meekness and wrath? Superficially, It’s A Wonderful Life may seem a more contemporary story than the Aeneid, and yet the characters in the former may seem just as dated as the latter. Donna Reed playing the meek wife? Does that have any place in our contemporary culture?
I would argue that No, the image of the meek woman likely does not have a place in our contemporary culture, but it should. That is not to say I think women should be weak, or subjugated to men. Instead, true meekness takes greater strength than its counterpart, wrath., As Stewart and Reed demonstrate, meekness is the way to victory.
As many will know, Stewart plays George Bailey, a man who has dreamed of escaping his small town ever since he was a boy to go see the world and build architectural marvels. Time and again, his aspirations are thwarted and the glory goes to someone else. His younger brother attends college while Stewart stays to run the family business, a small charitable building and loan company, so that it does not fall into the hands of the greedy and envious Mr. Potter. Stewart does get to marry the girl he loves, Mary Hatch, played by Reed, but is not able to provide the life he envisioned for his growing family — money is always tight and any extra seems to fly out the door to someone in need.
Reed, in contrast, seems happy and content. This is not out of ignorance of the strains and setbacks of life. Rather, she was living the life that she felt called to lead, and meekly accepted its burdens with patience, merciful understanding, and forgiveness. This may seem like a merely passive acceptance of things as they come, a way of ceding control to the world, but as the film unfolds, we see that Stewart’s wrath leads him down a dark path.
In a pivotal scene, Stewart cracks under pressure. He yells at his family, berates a teacher on the phone, and destroys the architectural models he has built, visibly dashing his hopes all over the living room of the family’s drafty old house. He has just learned that he and his family have been brought to the brink of financial ruin. His uncle, who works for the Bailey building and loan company, mislaid $8,000. Without the money, Stewart’s company is ruined and he will likely be sent to jail for malfeasance.
Stewart’s anger and despair at his situation is heartbreaking and understandable. Despairing anger is a far easier emotion to indulge than patience — how better to take command of a situation that is spiraling out of control than lashing out? hen But when Reed sees Stewart lash out at their children and call the goodness of their life into question, rather than reaching for anger, she restrains herself.
Like Peisistratos, she forgives one who, although in the wrong, has acted out of love, and entreats her children to pray for their father. Then — like Mary upon finally locating her missing son, Jesus, in the temple courts — patiently takes time to learn the facts before deciding how to react. After Stewart’s departure, she calls his uncle to find out the source of the trouble and then begins calling on the family’s friends for help.
When Stewart flees his house and family, we see him and Reed diverge: one stumbles down the road of wrath, the other patiently follows the road of meekness.
Dante shows us that the way of wrath is dark, the light choked out by thick, terrible smoke. Stewart goes straight to Mr. Potter, who gleefully suggests that Stewart ask the riff-raff that Stewart calls friends for the money. Stewart dismisses the notion. No one has that kind of money in the town except for Potter.
It is true at first glance. No one man has $8,000, but given the charitable life that Stewart and Reed have led to that point, their great mass of friends could manage the cost among them. It is clear-eyed Reed who understands this.
Upon learning the essential facts of the situation — that Stewart was in trouble and needed $8,000 — her road took her to every familiar door asking if their friends could help. She recognized that in this life we are called to be the Good Samaritan and to help our neighbor, but she also recognized that sometimes we are the man lying on the side of the road and must allow another, or many others, to help us.
While Reed is bravely going door to door, Stewart continues to stumble down his path deeper into darkness until finally he winds up on a bridge. Despairing anger can lead one to do horrific things — its sad logical end is murder.
Think of Dante’s examples: Queen Amata, like Stewart intends in the movie, murders herself based on false information. At first glance, suicide may sometimes seem noble, particularly in Stewart’s case. He is doing it for his loved ones so they may benefit from the $15,000 payout on his life insurance. It also may seem courageous, in that it appears as if he is giving up his life for others. This is because we live in a world that romanticizes suicide: choosing death may be sad, but we sympathize and perhaps even glorify it. We have lost our way as a society that sees the ending of Romeo and Juliet as romantic, or Stewart’s intentions on the bridge as understandable. G.K. Chesterton wrote:
Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world. … The thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them. But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it. He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake. There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer. When a man hangs himself on a tree, the leaves might fall off in anger and the birds fly away in fury: for each has received a personal affront.
How tragic It’s a Wonderful Life would have been had an angel not intervened. Reed would have returned home with all of their friends and neighbors who had come to help, only to learn that Stewart was dead. This is not romance. This is not nobility. It is ugly, cruel stupidity. I am reminded of Queen Amata’s daughter, Lavinia, whom Dante encounters weeping for her mother, crying, “O Queen, why hast thou wished in anger to be nought? … Now thou hast lost me; I am she who mourns, Mother, at thine ere at another’s ruin” (Purgatorio 17; 35-9).
Reed would have saved the day only to find that Stewart had put himself beyond saving. But Clarence the angel cleared away the smoke so that Stewart could find his way back to his family, no longer a man blinded by wrath, but clear-eyed and richly content in being reunited with his wife so that he may join her in walking the path of meekness together. It is not only good to have a meek wife, but a meek husband as well. Men as well as women are called to find strength in a meek existence, a point perhaps not lost on Dante: of his three examples of meekness, two are men, while two of his three examples of wrath are women.
When Stewart and Reed diverged after that pivotal scene in It’s a Wonderful Life, Stewart took the easy road full of big, foolish, empty gestures made in desperate anger, unable to see and think clearly. Reed took the hard road, paved with meek patience and illuminated by the little lights over countless doors on which she would quietly knock. It was she who prevailed, a small victory that helps remind us of that ultimate victory, when the meek shall inherit the earth.
Sarah 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.