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Pollyanna: A Literary Heroine For Our Time

LONDON-All my life I have constantly battled between being an optimist and a realist, teetering on the verge of being a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full kinda gal. And in these upsetting and nerve-wracking times of the Covid-19 pandemic, the ever-changing hourly news can not only spin my mood but it’s also spiraling governments and schools and stock markets and families across the globe. So it’s making it really hard to stay positive and see any kind of bright side in daily life. But that’s really what we must do right now, and Pollyanna is the character in literature who can provide that lesson.

Growing up my mom had me read a lot of her favorite childhood books including “Little Women”, “Anne of Green Gables” (who also looked on the jolly side of things), “The Secret Garden” and “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm”  But it was “Pollyanna” (by Eleanor H. Porter, first published in 1913) who my mom quoted from the most to me and introduced me to the idiom that in life we need to try and find the positives, even when it looks quite dire and depressing.

Though I would urge you to read it yourself, the general plot is that Pollyanna Whittier is an orphan, as many great heroes and heroines from the “Golden Age” of literature tended to be.  At the age of 11, she goes to live in a fictional town in Vermont with her wealthy but grumpy spinster Aunt Polly who begrudgingly takes her in. Pollyanna’s sunny philosophy of life—which she learned from her father— is focused on what she calls “The Glad Game”, consisting of always finding something uplifting in a situation even though it may seem bleak.

 

This game grew out of an incident one Christmas when Pollyanna wished for a doll. But in the missionary barrel, all that was there were crutches. To try and keep his daughter’s disappointment at bay, her father made up the game on the spot saying that you should always look for the good side of things; in the case of the crutches it was to be grateful that she did not need them (in this scene she is talking to her aunt’s maid, Nancy, explaining the game):

 

“Goosey! Why, just be glad because you don’t—NEED—’EM!” exulted Pollyanna, triumphantly. “You see it’s just as easy–when you know how!”

“Well, of all the queer doin’s!” breathed Nancy, regarding Pollyanna with almost fearful eyes.

“Oh, but it isn’t queer–it’s lovely,” maintained Pollyanna enthusiastically. “And we’ve played it ever since. And the harder ’tis, the more fun ’tis to get ’em out; only—only sometimes it’s almost too hard—like when your father goes to Heaven, and there isn’t anybody but a Ladies’ Aid left.”

 

Already having a sunny, sincere and sympathetic personality, over time Pollyanna brings a lot of happiness to the town  and “The Glad Game” shields her from Aunt Polly’s cold attitude towards her (in one scene when she is taken to her new room, located in the stuffy attic with no rugs or paintings on the walls, she extols the virtues of having a beautiful view from her high window). There are many more trials and tribulations but in the end, even though Pollyanna’s good nature is tested by a terrible accident, she is able to remember to be upbeat and chipper. Even her Aunt Polly’s heart thaws when she finds love.

After the success of the book (and later on in a number of films from the 1920 version starring Mary Pickford film to Disney’s 1960 film starring Hayley Mills) adjectives like  “Pollyannaish” and expressions about “being a Pollyanna” were used to described unquenchable optimism during even the most discouraging or adverse of situations.

And that is what we are in now. The word “unprecedented” has been bandied around so much these days that I can’t stand it anymore. Yes, we are in uncharted territory. Yes, it’s scary for everyone…from the mother who has to somehow homeschool her kids while also working from home and the doctor, exhausted, who wakes up every day to trudge back to the frontlines of this health battle to the woman who lives hand to mouth selling sells vegetables in a market stall in an overcrowded informal settlement in Nairobi. (My positive spin on the homeschooling at least is it’s a good time to teach your kids the lesson of how lucky they are to have access to school as so many children around the world simply do not).

 

There is much to be learned from Pollyanna’s take on the world; that we have to try, in spite of all this doom and gloom, to not only look for the positive stories out there (today, for example, it was announced that China has no new domestic cases of the virus) but also to try and spin things on its head. I can’t be with my mom and brothers who live in the United States, but thank goodness we have the technology like the internet and FaceTime so I can communicate with them.

I have worked from home for years so that won’t make much of a difference if we are locked down, but it might also mean that the extra hands we get for my toddler twins won’t be able to come anymore. But we have tons of art supplies and I haven’t done a crafty thing in years so that will be fun. I don’t bake much, but I suspect my children, who like to help out in the kitchen when I make dinner, will adore “helping” to stir ingredients together.  I may even pretend to host a cooking show, something my mom and I did when I was a girl.

Exercise might be hard, but I have wanted to work on my core for a while, so this might be a great excuse to start doing sit-ups and even an online pilates class. If we can still go to the parks, I will maybe take up jogging again. Once the kids are in bed, I have loads of books that I have not got around to reading so I have no excuse not to crack their spines. And I may just start reading “Pollyanna” to my kids–they might be a bit young for the overall lesson to sink in but you can never start too early learning to take very bitter lemons and turn them into sweet lemonade. Because that is what Pollyanna would do.


 

 

 

Ginanne Brownell Mitic, co-founder and co-editor of she-files.com

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