Since we are isolated and stuck inside during this Christmas season, I decided this year I was going to put together a list of of my favorite Christmas stories. The angle I took in putting this together is Christmas “pairings”, be it in book form or film. These are stories that seem to me to have a connection in spirit and focus, and which have inspired me over the years.
I have come up with 15 pairings of films/books in total, and my plan is to present those films one a day along with a brief reflection on why these stories resonated for me, how I see them fitting together, and what I think they can say to us in a more difficult Christmas season.
Here is my twelfth pairing 🙂
THE DEAD (novella by James Joyce and 1987 film adaption) and LITTLE WOMEN (2019)
“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
– James Joyce
Joyce’s short story The Dead, is a brilliant treatment on how it is that we find our identity in both our personal ambitions while also in relationship with friendships, partnerships and marriages, communities and families, culture and heritage.
As the story unfolds, we followGabriel Conroy, a socially awkward Irish intellectual who arrives at a Christmas gathering with his wife. He is supposed to give a speech around the table, something that is causing him great anxiety, and as we watch Gabriel gradually interacting with the different characters in the room we get the sense that he has arrived at this party with a lot of unspoken angst and anxiety in tow . The speech, it would seem, embodies these unspoken thoughts and emotions that are creating this anxiety (personal, political and religious, social), and yet one would have to be willing to see behind the words in order to see what it is that is truly shaping him in this moment.
As we enter this holiday season facing further isolation and mandated social distancing, The Dead is a reminder of that even in a normal year holiday gatherings can be places of anxiety for many. We often arrive in these spaces with many unspoken emotions of our own, with roles and functions to play and expectations and responsibilities to fulfill, and these feelings can fluctuate between being a wanted intrusion on our anxious thoughts or a weighty obligation and being overwhelmed. For those who feel this and carry this, even the fact they have these thoughts can carry a level of shame and confusion.
And yet, as The Dead suggests, these functions of relationship are also important and necesssary, something we see in the astute observation of its story arc. It is as Gregory leaves the party with his wife that he is finally able to reflect on the anxiety he carried through those doors and the different persons that are shaping his world. And a chance to retreat to a hotel with his wife offers him an opportunity to narrow in on the most intimate of these relationships. It is here though that his anxiety and his joy are able to come together in an unexpected moment of clarity. A quiet revelation from his wife uncovers the fact that even in the most inimate of relationships we still carry these unspoken feelings and can feel very much alone, and it is when we are able to peel back these revelations that we can gain a bigger picture of who we are and who someone else is within these feelings. The final scene in the film manages to capture the final notes of the page in a brilliant fashion, with Gabriel looking out the window alone at the falling snow and giving himself over to the season’s powerful sentiment of togetherness. Looking out the window he imagines all of the relationships that make us who we are, living and dead, political and religious, family and heritage, culture and community, and it ultimately leads him to a sense of awe.
In the recent adaptation of Little Women, Director Greta Gerwig brilliantly brings together the different aspects of the popuular story’s origins and subsequent adapatations to say something important about these relationships that define us. For author Louisa May Alcott, the author of the source material, she wanted to write a story that challenged the conventions of her day and which expressed something of her own story being raised in a somewhat divided home and seeing the oppression of a male dominated society first hand. As a feminist, the story she imagined in Little Women wanted to cast a female character that both celebrated the bonds of family togetherness while also upholding the freedom of personal aspirations and independence. What Gerwig does is bring together this vision of the story with the fact that the story that eventually made it to page was essentially forced to marry Jo off in order to serve conventions and get published. Gerwig looks to redeem the story of Alcott’s vision while also honoring its tradition, using this to say something about the growing (and yet still complicated) freedom that women do experience today to tell the stories that they desire to tell.
All throughout this most recent adaptation we see Jo being shaped by the relationships around her, much in the same way that Alcott was in her own life. Some of these are living, some of these are dead. She is shaped by the socio-political expectations of her day as much as she is the social conventions. She is also shaped by her family and her heritage. As she begins to explore who it is that she is (as a writer, which Gerwig uses to tell Alcott’s own story) against and within these realities, we gain a profound sense of the unspoken personal tension and anxiety she carries. The sentiment she expresses about feeling very much alone and yet also burdened by all these relationships is reminiscent of what Gabriel carries into this holiday gathering in The Dead. It is a complicated place to be and exist, and yet all of these things are integral to who she eventually becomes as an independent woman.
Christmas can be a reminder of both our lonliness and our togetherness shaped by our unspoken anxities, joys, aspirations and concerns. It is often a time when we are able to allow these two things to sit in conversation with one another. A reconciling of self and relationship. A time of reflection and a time of revelation. And a part of the power of the Christmas celebration is the way it celebrates the power of the God-Human relationship to both shape who are as truly liberated children and as the community of the beloved. A place where both our lonliness and our togetherness can be informed, and where our anxieties and our joys can find their fullest expression.