Letting Clarence Drown

Everyman's decision.

Everyman’s decision.

An Off-Season Reflection

The bridge scene in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life is one of the most meaningful in all of American film. Until recently, though, I had never given it much thought beyond what Capra undoubtedly wanted us to think about it. George Bailey, in a bind and contemplating suicide, has his mind diverted by the sight and sound of a man drowning in the river below–not a man, of course, but the angel Clarence, sent from Heaven to save George from self-destruction. George immediately climbs over the bridge railing and dives into the river, saving the life of another rather than ending his own. The lesson is plain and endearing: the greater suffering of others spurs us to forget our own troubles and not only come to their aid but save ourselves as well.

We would like to think that George Bailey’s reaction is typical, or at least reflects our own nature. I wonder. How unrealistic would it have been had Frank Capra scripted a George Bailey who let Clarence drown? When I think of all the suffering in the world–its innumerable gradations, from marital quarrels and lost jobs to civil wars and genocides, its rankings set out like some sort of class system of woe–I wonder how is it that we are able to determine that another’s suffering is greater than our own and worthy of more attention? Money “comes in pretty handy down here, bub,” George later tells Clarence as they dry off. But maybe George could have thought while still on the bridge: “This bozo is so stupid to fall into the river, let him save himself – nobody’s trying to save me, bub.” Or perhaps George could have hesitated, wondering about the danger, or ran and called for help. Maybe in doing so he lost just enough time to lose Clarence.

We rarely consciously decide not to come to the aid of others. We are simply preoccupied with our own problems, which always look not only bigger than they are but bigger than the problems of others. Admittedly, our own suffering can impose great psychic burdens that make it difficult for us to properly measure the magnitude of things.

We would like to think that every Clarence is saved by every George, but all too often George lets Clarence drown, and he himself (not to mention Clarence) is the worse for it. I can only wonder how often I have been a different man than Capra’s George Bailey, when the best thing for me by far would have been to climb that railing and dive into that river.

The Warm-But-Not-Fuzzy Joys of The Odyssey


You remember Homer’s epic similes—those longish, detailed, and often surprising comparisons of rather dissimilar things: helmeted heads to poppy flowers, thigh wounds to stylish harnesses, generals to woodcutters, weeping women to melting mountains, the pieces of skin torn from the limbs of a rock-battered, half-drowned man to pebbles lodged in octopus arms. While the epic similes of The Iliad often startle the reader by comparing acts of war to images of peacetime, those of The Odyssey often reinforce the themes of journey, homecoming, and community.

Especially notable are those passages where Homer compares one character’s experience to an experience that more obviously belongs to another. I’ll look at five of these (using Fagles’ translation, since that’s the one we use in my Great Works of Lit class).

1. In the first, Odysseus has been bobbing in the ocean since his raft was blown to smithereens three days earlier by Poseidon. Lifted by a wave, he catches glimpse of terra firma once again:

Joy… warm as the joy that children feel
When they see their father’s life dawn again,
One who’s lain on a sickbed racked with torment,
Wasting away, slowly, under some angry power’s onslaught—
Then what joy when the gods deliver him from his pains!
So warm, Odysseus’ joy when he saw that shore, those trees,
as he swam on, anxious to plant his feet on solid ground again. (5.436-442)

Odysseus seeing land is like a child seeing his father return from the threshold of death. Our thoughts turn from the coastline of Scheria to Telemachus. Love for his son was the reason Odysseus feigned madness at the first mustering of the troops, and the reason he eventually had to give up the charade and go to war. Like the children of the epic simile, Telemachus, now a precocious twenty-year-old, doubts his father is alive and headed home. Continue reading