Marriage, Motherhood, and Money: The Morality of the American Dream in Mildred Pierce

Nominated for six Academy Awards, and winner of one (Best Actress – Joan Crawford), Mildred Pierce is a practically perfect film. It boasts a taut, compelling storyline; lush, evocative, noir-style cinematography; and first-rate performances across the board.

Essentially a cautionary tale about flouting the institution of marriage, misguided methods of mothering, and the idolatrous pursuit of money, it makes a powerful statement regarding these three foundational elements of the American dream. Its themes are equally apt today as in 1946, the year of its release—perhaps more so.

*             *             *

Mildred Pierce is a woman driven by a solitary desire to profusely provide for, protect, and please Veda, the elder of her two daughters. Veda is also driven by a singular desire—she longs for wealth and social status. Veda’s obsession feeds into that of her mother, and the drama of the film is catalyzed by this conflict-ridden interaction, which leads to divorce, an in-name-only marriage, financial ruin, and even murder.

Mildred’s husband, Bert, sums up the core conflict of the film in one of its opening scenes: “The trouble is, you’re trying to buy love from those kids and it won’t work.”

“I’ll do anything for those kids, do you understand? Anything,” Mildred replies. “They’ll never do any crying if I can help it … I’m determined to do the best I can for them. If I can’t do it with you, I’ll do it without you.” And just like that, Mildred capsizes their marriage.

Mildred does indeed do anything, and virtually everything, in an effort to please and appease the perpetually dissatisfied Veda. Veda, for her part, disdains and disparages everything her mother does, forever demanding more.

The dynamic of their relationship is overtly demonstrated the night after Bert moves out. Veda suggests that Mildred should marry a man she doesn’t love, simply because he is well-off. “If you married him, maybe we could have a maid like we used to, and a limousine, and maybe a new house,” Veda muses. “There are so many things that I—that we—should have and haven’t got.”

“I want you to have nice things,” Mildred replies. “I’ll get you anything, everything you want.” And, being a woman of her word, Mildred works night and day in an effort to earn the money necessary to placate and indulge Veda.

First, she surreptitiously takes a waitressing job, which pays well enough to provide the family with a comfortable life. But when Veda discovers the working-class nature of Mildred’s job, she charges her mother with having “degrade[d] us,” and accuses Mildred of having a low-class background, which she speculates is the cause behind her father’s departure.

So Mildred steps up her game. She opens her own restaurant, which is quite successful. She buys the building from society-page darling and unapologetic loafer Monty Beragon. Veda, who is rapidly “becoming a young lady with expensive tastes,” is instantly charmed by Monty, and they begin to frequent the places patronized by the idle rich.

Desperate to keep pace with Veda and Monty’s profligate spending habits—Mildred is supporting them both by this point—Mildred opens additional restaurants, transforming her business into a chain. Every location turns a handsome profit.

Veda, meanwhile, inveigles a young millionaire into a quickie marriage. She then asks for an annulment, deceitfully claims to be pregnant, and demands a $10,000 settlement to care for the non-existent child.

Mildred is furious when she discovers Veda’s deception. She demands to know why Veda would do something so remarkably reprehensible.

“With this money, I can get away from you … and everything that smells of grease.” Veda spats. Then she really lets Mildred have it: “You think just because you made a little money you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady. But you can’t. Because you’ll never be anything but a common frump, whose father lived over a grocery store, and whose mother took in washing.”

Livid, Mildred rips up the $10,000 check and throws Veda out.

In an effort to run away from her past and problems, Mildred travels. But when she returns, nothing has changed—she still wants Veda, and is willing to do whatever it takes to get her back.

Bert takes Mildred to Veda’s workplace. They find her wearing a skimpy, flashy dress and singing “The Oceana Roll” in a cheap dive. Mildred begs Veda to come home.

“You still don’t understand, do you?” Veda asks. “You think new curtains are enough to make me happy. No, I want more than that … the way you want to live isn’t good enough for me.”

In an effort to overhaul her lifestyle into something that will be good enough for Veda, Mildred proposes marriage to Monty Beragon, who has social standing and a veneer of respectability in spite of his lack of real wealth. In exchange for his aristocratic name and residence in his lavish family home, Monty demands a 1/3 share of Mildred’s business. They settle the terms of their marriage as if negotiating a business deal, and Mildred winds up doing exactly what Veda suggested years earlier—she marries someone she doesn’t love in order to elevate her social standing.

Attracted by the possibility of entry into blue-blooded circles afforded by Mildred’s new marriage, Veda returns home. But all is not well. The old pattern repeats, ultimately leading to financial ruin and violent death.

*             *             *

In Mildred Pierce, marriage and motherhood are inextricably interrelated. They, along with money matters, are serious business that ought to be transacted according to traditional rules and conventions. A multitude of misfortunate events are triggered by the characters’ failure to follow the established socio-cultural norms associated with these structures.

For example, when Mildred walks out on Bert, she jettisons perhaps the only person who could have curtailed Veda’s evolution into a materialistic and morally bankrupt golem. Though Mildred defines herself primarily by her deep devotion to her children, no amount of effort or good intention on her part can ever compensate for the lack of a husband and father. Her attempt to redress Bert’s absence by showering her children with material things backfires horribly. And when she discards the time-honored customs associated with disciplined child-rearing in favor of parental prodigality, one child turns out to be a ruthless monster, and the other winds up dead. Her maternal vocation cannot be successful in the absence of matrimony, and no amount of money can change that.

Mildred’s divorce also leaves her vulnerable to the vicious exploitation she endures in her second so-called marriage. This seemingly tidy financial transaction leads to several serious and sundry betrayals, and ends with the untimely death of one involved party. Mildred’s divorce and remarriage for material ends also promote Veda’s moral dissipation; they insinuate that money is more important than love, that a marriage can be casually cast aside if it becomes inconvenient, and that matrimony and motherhood can and should be manipulated for material gain.

Veda’s marriage misadventure also serves to illustrate the film’s matrimonial, monetary, and maternal morality. When Veda misuses marriage and feigns motherhood for financial gain, she sabotages several important relationships, and ends up as catcall and wolf-whistle fodder in a tawdry dump—an existence that couldn’t possibly be any further removed from the aristocratic life of leisure she imagines she is owed.

At the film’s end, on the other hand, the properly wed Mildred and Bert are reunited. They walk together toward the rising sun of a new day, and a film heretofore characterized by the liberal use of shadows and darkness is filled with the light of dawn.

*             *             *

Clearly, the worldview promulgated by this film has Catholic overtones, in that it endorses the same traditional values to which we adhere.

For example, Bert, in his role of husband and father, is the voice of moral authority and truth. His observations concerning the origin and nature of Veda’s greed and conceit, as well as their probable consequences, all turn out to be true.

Mildred’s first marriage is portrayed as the only truly legitimate one—one which remains even after a civil divorce. And Mildred’s decision to divorce Bert is not treated as a mere mercurial mistake—on the contrary, it’s outrightly condemned as wrong.

Suffering builds inner strength and forges a sound moral compass. The avoidance and lack of normal suffering, on the other hand, leads to the ugliest selfishness, an absence of charity, and grave sin. Mildred, who voluntarily adopts an excess of suffering in order to spare her children therefrom, is a formidable person with a strong sense of right and wrong who gracefully weathers many misfortunes. Contrarily, Veda, who has been handed virtually everything she ever wanted without the pains of labor, is an amoral beast completely lacking in love.

Finally, the intemperate love and pursuit of wealth provides no lasting happiness, but, rather, leads to dissipation and disaster. True success is not gauged by the size of one’s bank account, but by the extent to which one lives according to traditional moral principles.

In sum, according to Mildred Pierce, the authentic American dream is the achievement of moral, rather than material, prosperity. It is a timely message, now more than ever.



The Reproach of a Box of Treasure – Lifeboat and the Treasures of the Church

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh … It will be hard going for the Church, for the process … will make her poor.

-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 1969

It is the reproach of a box of treasure, that once overboard it must drown.

-Herman Melville




Ever since God flooded the world and used a salvific watercraft to protect the few survivors, the application of nautical analogies to the Church has seemed perfectly natural. Sometimes the formula works in reverse, too—one can analyze stories with a nautical motif through a Catholic lens and derive cogent meaning therefrom.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat is one example. Set during World War II, the film opens with a battle between a Merchant Marine freighter and a Nazi U-boat. Both vessels are sunk. Eight passengers from the freighter manage to find their way onto a battered lifeboat; one German winds up aboard with them.

The film follows this group until the brink of their rescue. Over the course of the time they are adrift at sea, they battle storms, disease, hunger, thirst, and one another. The entirety of the film’s action occurs upon the tiny boat.

But the film is not action-driven; rather, the drama transpires in the cramped spaces between the inadvertent vagabonds. Therein, life stories are swapped, survival staples are shared, punches are thrown, and words are bandied about—which occasionally catalyze the transformation of the interpersonal into the internecine. Read as a quasi-allegory for the Church, this film yields countless meaningful nuggets. But I shall focus on one thread, that of Lifeboat as a cautionary tale about the dangers of abandoning time-tested treasures.

*             *             *

Freelance journalist and writer Connie Porter is the first passenger aboard the lifeboat. With the help of Joe “Charcoal” Spencer—the ship’s steward, and a deeply spiritual man—she has salvaged several valuables from the shipwreck, including a camera, a typewriter, a fur coat, a suitcase, and a diamond bracelet—“the bare necessities,” according to her.

Next to arrive is John Kovac. The pair begins to disagree immediately.




“Lady, you certainly don’t look like somebody that’s just been shipwrecked,” pants the out-of-breath Kovac.

“Man, I certainly feel like it.” Connie responds.

“I thought this lifeboat was abandoned,” says Kovac.

“Not by me, it wasn’t,” says Connie. “It looked pretty good to me.”

Thus is the stage set for the great love/hate saga of the picture.

Kovac is full of passion, conviction, and fiery opinions, many of which betray Communist sympathies—as Connie is quick to note—and each of which he is fully convinced is completely correct. The acting upon these convictions leads directly—whether intentionally or not—to the tossing overboard of Connie’s possessions, one after another.

*             *             *

Interpretation of this film as a Catholic allegory requires the acceptance of a few fundamental premises, all of which are beautifully stated in the quote from Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) cited at the outset. Firstly, one must agree that the Church was in crisis at the time that statement was made. One must also agree that we are currently a Church that has lost much.

Building upon these foundational theses, one can interpret the Merchant Marine freighter as the Church in better times—when its Sunday pews were full, its socio-political influence was strong, its laity was well-catechized, and its teachings were more consistently and clearly disseminated by its priests and bishops. The torpedoes represent the forces of secularism, modernism, relativism, and other such deleterious forces. And the battered lifeboat symbolizes the Church of today—one which has lost scores of adherents, has had its reputation tarnished by scandal, and has gutted its own storehouses.

Viewed through this lens, Connie’s possessions assume meaningful significance—they can be interpreted as various treasures of the Church. And just like Connie’s possessions, many of these treasures have been abandoned or destroyed over recent decades.

*             *             *




The first item to hit the waves is Connie’s camera. It contains film with powerful images documenting her war-related experiences, which Connie describes as “irreplaceable.” Similarly, the majority of our churches were once filled with timeless art depicting the history and heroes of the Church. But pastors and church architects dispensed with traditional imagery and architectural styles in the late 20th century, exchanging exquisitely ornate high altars for non-descript rectangular boxes on wheels, and trading stained glass for minimalist woodcuts and blank, whitewashed walls.




In the end, beauty that transcends trends, sparks the imagination, and hints at the splendor of heaven was traded for a now-outdated aesthetic almost as close to the sublime as the waiting rooms in dental offices.




The next item lost is Connie’s fur coat. It can be interpreted to represent clerical vestments. Before the reforms beginning in the 1960’s, vestments were made exclusively from high-quality natural fibers like silk and linen, and were heavily embellished and embroidered, often with thread made of real gold.




These days, most vestments are made of polyester, with low-quality embellishments that more readily evoke the cheap flashiness of cellophane tinsel than the opulent grandeur befitting priests, prophets, and kings.




Let’s not forget the abandonment of the cassock as the priestly “uniform.” It is not unusual for modern priests to wear the same leisure clothes a doctor, banker, or basketball player might wear. In so doing, they have become, in outward essence, just like everybody else. A friend recently related an anecdote about having met a priest without having realized that is what she had done—after all, there was nothing about his attire that suggested his vocation. When the person who introduced her later referred to the man she’d met as “Father So-And-So,” my friend became angry. She felt she had been tricked in some way—betrayed, even—and would have shown more deference and respect, had she known she had been speaking to someone who regularly acts in the person of Christ.




Connie’s typewriter is the third item lost. This can be interpreted as representing the liturgy, which was radically overhauled in the mid-20th century, particularly after Vatican II. Vatican II’s intended purpose was the spiritual renewal of the Church. However, the radical changes made to the liturgy under the so-called “spirit of Vatican II” prevented this goal from being achieved—indeed, the result was an epic failure. The numbers of priests, parishes, Catholic schools (and students therein), and baptisms, have all dropped dramatically since the close of the Council in 1965; meanwhile, the number of adults who have left the Church has skyrocketed. Furthermore, although the vernacularization of the Mass, disposition shift from ad orientem to versus populum, and other liturgical changes were meant to make the Mass more appealing to the faithful, and thereby to increase attendance, the reforms appear to have accomplished the exact opposite—in 1965, 55% of self-identified Catholics attended Mass every week, whereas by 2015, the number had dropped to a pitiful 24%.

Next to bite the dust is Connie’s suitcase. This can be interpreted to symbolize the tabernacle. While church architects and design professionals were busy transforming the breathtaking into the banal, they often moved the location of the tabernacle from its proper place of prominence to the liturgical equivalent of the kids’ table. Although not dispensed with entirely, it can be difficult to locate the tabernacle in many modern churches. A friend recently visited a church where the tabernacle wasn’t in the sanctuary, or on a separate altar beside the pews, or even in the main part of the church, but was, rather, down a hall, next to the bathroom.

But the last item—Connie’s diamond bracelet—is most important of all. It was a gift that cost her nothing; she describes it as having “worked miracles” for her, and as having gotten her everything she wanted. Kovac describes it as a “handcuff,” and devotes a large portion of the film to trying to convince Connie to abandon it, or sulking when she refuses.




Near the end of the film, when the passengers are starving and dying of thirst, Connie suggests they use this sparkling treasure as fish bait. Indeed, they catch a huge fish in no time flat via this method, but a looming Nazi supply ship on the horizon is sufficient distraction to cause the crew to let go of the line, and, consequently, the bracelet that could have fed them all.

Like the diamonds on the bracelet, the traditions of the Church are flawless, beautiful, and were forged over a long period of time under great stress. They are also capable of keeping countless people well-fed indefinitely.

Let us not allow the looming enemy to distract or distress us into casting them aside.

*             *             *

So what about that looming Nazi supply ship?

As it nears, the passengers aboard the lifeboat seem resigned to their fate, even relieved to be reaching the end of their tribulation-filled voyage, although they will be in the hands of the enemy and likely bound for a concentration camp. Just as the ship begins to close the distance, an Allied shell falls from the sky. In no time flat, the supply ship is headed down to Davy Jones’s Locker.

A remote Allied ship approaches. The passengers quickly begin to plan what they will do when they return to normal life.

Connie and Kovac look at one another lovingly. “Don’t forget,” says Connie, “you owe me a bracelet.”

“Yows’m,” says Kovac with an agreeable smile.

“And a typewriter.”


“And a camera.”

“You bet.”

And what about us? We’ve not yet been rescued—we’re still in the lifeboat. So will we go happily into the hands of those who’ll gleefully destroy us? Or will we hold out for final victory, a restoration of our treasures, and the eventual re-establishment of fraternal accord within the Church? It is a decision each of us must make, over and over, every day.

Lord, your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side … The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them! It is we who betray you time and time again … When we fall, we drag you down to earth, and Satan laughs, for he hopes that you will not be able to rise from that fall; he hopes that being dragged down in the fall of your Church, you will remain prostrate and overpowered. But you will rise again. You stood up, you arose and you can also raise us up. Save and sanctify your Church. Save and sanctify us all.

-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 2005




On Cuckoo Captains and Seemingly Sinking Ships: Lessons from The Caine Mutiny

You don’t work with a captain because you like the way he parts his hair. You work with him because he’s got the job, or you’re no good.

– Lt. Barney Greenwald, The Caine Mutiny

Like [Noah’s] Ark, the Catholic Church is not perfect. It’s not tidy, clean, and odor-free. It has plenty of problems and challenges and unruly passengers, but it’s still the ‘ark of salvation’ given to us by God…

– Patrick Madrid, Catholic apologist


I have a dear friend who recently hop-scotched his way out of the Catholic Church and into Russian Orthodoxy. His stated reason? He has lost faith in the infallibility of the Pope.

I was catechized, baptized, and Confirmed with this friend. I know him pretty well. He has always impressed me, ever since our earliest conversations, in which he – a then-catechumen, mind you – casually and comfortably discussed the works of Church fathers and various Council documents.

I can safely say that this guy is no dope. He put in a lot of intellectual legwork prior to making the decision to become Catholic. And yet, he fell into one of the most unsophisticated traps in the Devil’s bag of tricks.

It makes me want to crack him over the head with a heavy book.

Last night, I re-watched The Caine Mutiny, the classic tale of a mentally ill captain and the men who seize control from him during a vicious typhoon. I couldn’t help but think that Lieutenant Barney Greenwald must have felt exactly the same way about his clients as I feel about my friend when assigned the task of defending them against charges of mutiny. One of the first things he says to the pair is: “I think what you’ve done stinks.” Later, he admits that he would prefer to be prosecuting them.


To be fair, Lt. Maryk and Ensign Keith – the accused – were clearly dealing with a captain of unsound mind. Immediately upon assuming command of the Caine, Captain Queeg makes a series of mistakes, cowardly decisions, and paranoid outbursts; he is unwilling to accept responsibility for the consequences of these actions, and shifts the blame onto his underlings in a brusque, bullying manner. We can certainly understand the men’s anxiety at having Cpt. Queeg in command during the typhoon, given his previous track record, and the fact that lives are at stake.

The Caine Mutiny

And, to be fair to my friend, we are currently dealing with a Pope who has the most exasperating habit of making vague, equivocal, and even downright problematic remarks, which have the unfortunate result of misleading the masses into thinking he is radically changing unchangeable fundamentals of Catholic teaching. I suppose this Pope’s behavior could cause well-meaning and intelligent people to doubt his infallibility—assuming these people don’t understand the nuances of that particular dogma, which does not assure that everything the Pope says will be perfectly correct. Rather, the Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs that infallibility is gifted to the Pope only when “he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals” (891 – emphasis added). In other words, off-the-cuff remarks made during interviews and press conferences are not covered under this particular divine insurance policy.

Given that the Caine seemed certain to founder under Cpt. Queeg’s cockeyed command, surely Lt. Maryk was justified in seizing control of the ship? Likewise, given the bewildering behavior of our current Pope, is it not understandable if people – like my friend, for example – throw up their hands in hopeless vexation and go in search of greener pastures?

The answer to both questions is an unqualified No. And here’s why.

Lt. Greenwald makes an astute point when he reminds the officers of the Caine that they had ample opportunity to exert respectful influence over their captain prior to their usurpation of his position; in fact, Cpt. Queeg directly requested their help in his own awkward, socially stunted way after one of his gaffes. However, instead of trying to maneuver the captain onto more sane, stable ground, the officers focused on his flaws, and ruminated on their resentment, so that, when a crisis developed, they were primed to lash out against their lawfully appointed, if imperfect, commander.


In parallel, as Catholics, if we don’t approve of our Pope’s words or actions, it is our duty to pray for the man, and petition him with our grievances. He cannot do a more satisfactory job if he has no input or prayerful support from his flock. It does no good to endlessly complain about the situation amongst ourselves, fixating on our discontent, without ever trying to proactively improve the situation through the means accorded to us.

Secondly, for both sailors and lay Catholics, it is pure insolence to disdain the chain of command. The Navy and the Church are organizations with complex hierarchies designed to maintain order and streamline operations. The mechanisms in place for the selection and promotion of authority figures are time-worn and battle-tested; they got to be this way for good reasons. That’s not to say mistakes don’t happen, or that once-good apples don’t sometimes turn rotten, but in general, the systems of both institutions deserve our respect.

When Ens. Keith testifies during Lt. Maryk’s trial, he insists that the Caine was “in imminent danger of foundering,” and that it was therefore necessary to take control of the ship. “Have you ever been in a ship that foundered?” the prosecutor asks. Ens. Keith admits he has not. “Mister Keith, how long have you been in the Navy?” Ens. Keith states that he has been in a little over a year. “Lt. Commander Queeg has served over eight years. I ask you, which of you is better qualified to judge if a ship is foundering?”


Both sailors convinced they can run the Navy better than the Admirals, and lay Catholics who believe they can run the Church better than the Pope, are guilty of grave hubris. From where we’re sitting, with the knowledge available to us, it may seem as though we coulda-shoulda-woulda done things better than the higher-ups in any given situation. But we never have all the facts, and our superiors have, well, a superior level of experience. As the prosecutor suggested to Ens. Keith, doesn’t that alone put them in a better position to make important judgment calls?

In the Church’s case, our superiors have been selected by God, and there is always a reason for everything He does. We may not understand exactly what that reason is, and that might drive us a little bit crazy. But having the humility to silence those “I-have-a-better-plan” voices, relax, and follow God’s plan instead, can work wonders for one’s sanity.

Furthermore, we Catholics have a massive leg up on those poor fellas aboard the Caine; we have God’s promise that He will not allow our ship to sink. Make no mistake—a monstrous typhoon is coming (if it has not already arrived); this world is doomed, and at some point in the not-too-distant future it may well seem to all of us beleaguered crewmen that the ship is about to go down. That’s when we must remind ourselves who built the ship in the first place, and that He didn’t build it just so He could watch it crash into little pieces a couple thousand years down the line.

And besides, look at our alternatives. The waters surrounding us are black, bottomless, and churning violently. If one jumps ship directly into them, one hasn’t got a chance. If one hops onto some stray semblance of a passing vessel, one is taking an equal risk. In all likelihood, given the current socio-political climate, one will be jumping onto some version of Hitchcock’s Lifeboat—it will either be commandeered by an idealistic but inept Marxist type who inadvertently sets a course to nowhere; or handed over to a fascist type who, singing gaily and confidently all the while, pilots his fellow passengers directly into imprisonment and slavery. But that’s fodder for another review.

The fact is, there is only one ship built by Christ and guaranteed to outlast the culture wars of this turbulent world. Everything else on the waters is just so much flotsam and jetsam. And only a fool clings to driftwood when he could be aboard a battleship.

So, even if the waves seem impossibly high, and even if we wind up with a Cpt. Queeg at the helm every now and then, the wise sailor will maintain his post and carry on with his assigned tasks—patiently, prayerfully, and unpretentiously—until we reach the shores of Paradise.




Portrait of Iniquity: Sin and Redemption in The Picture of Dorian Gray

“Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed. People talk sometimes of secret vices; there are no such things. If a wretched man has a vice, it shows itself in the lines of his mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the moulding of his hands, even.”

– Oscar Wilde


In the main, the more scandalous aspects of Oscar Wilde’s life are the ones that have been widely publicized, even celebrated. Relatively few people know about his other side—that which sincerely struggled with questions of faith. For example, it’s true that he went to prison for moral misconduct; it is also true that he read the works of Dante, Newman, and Augustine while incarcerated.

Wilde demonstrated a lifelong fascination with and attraction to Catholicism, ultimately leading to his deathbed conversion. His work and witticisms clearly demonstrate familiarity with and fondness for Catholic teaching and tradition, and The Picture of Dorian Gray is no exception. Most of us are at least vaguely familiar with its plot. In 1945, MGM released a film adaptation; this review addresses the film as a stand-alone work.

There are three principal characters: Dorian Gray himself; Basil Hallward, painter of the picture referenced in the title; and ne’er-do-well gadabout Lord Henry Wotton. Basil and Lord Henry are Dorian’s closest associates. For Dorian, their function is parallel to that of the cartoon angel and devil that appear over Daffy Duck’s shoulders when he faces a dilemma. Basil is Dorian’s shoulder angel. He has “a passion for virtue” and dispenses sound advice founded on solid moral principles. Lord Henry, on the other hand, is Dorian’s shoulder devil, forever smooth-talking him into sundry mischief.

Unfortunately for both Dorian and those within his orbit, Dorian almost always listens to the silver-tongued devil rather than the less eloquently cunning and more innocently wise angel. Granted, Lord Henry makes his case in so shrewd and slick a fashion, one might easily conclude that nothing sounding so good could possibly be bad.


For example, Lord Henry is apt to drop quick quips such as, “I like persons better than principles, and persons with no principles better than anything”; and, “No civilized man ever regrets a pleasure, and no uncivilized man ever knows what a pleasure is.” His wordplay is first-rate, but, as the Duchess says, “Lord Henry’s ideas are … delightful, but they are not to be taken seriously.”

Dorian apparently didn’t get that memo, because Lord Henry easily convinces him that “youth is the one thing worth having.” When Dorian first sees his portrait, he laments that the youthful image thereupon will remain unchanged, while he will grow old, and causally remarks that it would be nice if things were the other way around. Lord Henry warns Dorian that the cat statue on a nearby table is actually “one of the 73 great gods of Egypt,” and advises Dorian not to express such a sentiment in the idol’s presence, because it “is quite capable of granting your wish.”

But on the single occasion where Dorian actually should heed Lord Henry’s advice, he chooses instead to double down on his original statement. He repeats the wish—now a prayer because it is purposely directed to a supernatural entity—and escalates the gravity of the petition by offering his soul as payment.

The ill effects of this idolatrous act begin immediately. Restless and insatiable, Dorian starts spending his evenings “wander[ing] through the half-world of London,” attempting to put Lord Henry’s hedonistic philosophy into practice.

It is on one of these nocturnal prowls that he makes an unlikely acquaintance—a kind, pure-hearted vaudeville singer named Sibyl Vane. Sibyl sees only good in Dorian, and her own simple virtue inspires him to reform. The two fall in love, and Dorian proposes marriage.


Enter the shoulder devil. Lord Henry is ultimately successful in his bid to snuff out Dorian’s budding virtue; indeed, Dorian behaves so cruelly toward Sibyl that she is driven to despair, and meets a tragic end.

At this point, we see the first change in the portrait. Dorian notices “a touch of cruelty in the mouth.” The shocking revelation that the painting is “an emblem of his own conscience” inspires Dorian to “let it instruct him.” He resolves to make amends; meanwhile, he screens off the portrait.

Like clockwork, his shoulder devil again arrives on the scene. With his signature cajolery, Lord Henry convinces Dorian to forget the whole episode with Sibyl, and instead occupy himself with pleasurable diversions. Dorian doesn’t require much coaxing to return to his intemperate ways.

Time passes, and rumors spread. Basil is deeply troubled by the gossip about Dorian’s behavior, and confronts him. He names a litany of people who’ve been harmed by Dorian. Basil supposes there is no way to know what really goes on within Dorian’s mind and heart. To know that, he says, he would have to see Dorian’s soul.

“You’re the one man in the world who is entitled to know everything about me,” Dorian replies, alluding to Basil’s role as creator of the portrait. He decides to show Basil the transformation that has taken place thereupon.

This is the third time we, the audience, see the painting. This time, the figure it depicts is a brutal monstrosity. However, the hideousness is not used gratuitously or for mere shock value, but, rather, is employed with calculated purpose. It’s intended to drive home the theme of the film: sin is grotesque.

Like Dorian, we rarely confront the full scope of its ugliness, preferring to screen off its unseemliness and avoid facing our true selves. This is why we need tools like the examination of conscience to help us assess our standing in the eyes of God. For Dorian, the portrait serves this purpose; although his specific deeds are not depicted, their spiritually disfiguring effects are illustrated in disturbing detail.

“It was as if some moral leprosy were eating the thing away,” Basil thinks as he inspects it. Aloud, he says: “If this is what you’ve done with your life, it’s far worse than anything that’s been said of you.” Basil then offers the obvious solution: “Do you know how to pray, Dorian?” His words fall on deaf ears, however, and yet more casualties are added to the heap of Dorian’s victims.


Everyone Dorian touches is led to ruin, and he couldn’t care less … until he decides to marry Gladys, Basil’s daughter. This is a bit of history repeating. Like Sibyl, she is kind and pure-hearted. Also like Sibyl, she sees only the best in Dorian. Ultimately, her presence in his life starts to bring out what little good is left in him. As their marriage approaches, we find him musing, “I sometimes think I’d give anything if I could change and grow old like other people.” This is the exact opposite of his original wish/prayer in the first act of the film. His nights are haunted by guilt and nightmares about past misdeeds.

He decides to confront the painting, confront his conscience, confront himself. As he examines the monstrous image, he resolves to destroy the painting in order to break the spell, and take back upon himself the effects of age and sin. However, there is a connection between his body, his soul, and the painting, and when he slashes the painting, his body is mortally wounded.

He uses his dying breaths to pray, “Pray Father forgive me for I have sinned, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” And as he prays, the painting is restored to its original unbesmirched beauty, while Dorian’s face metamorphoses into the grisly visage it ought rightly to be.

Boiled down to its essence, this film is an exploration of, and cautionary tale against, the spiritually mutilating nature of sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that mortal sin “destroys charity in the heart of man” (1855). As Dorian’s sins grow increasingly grave, he becomes ever more callous–even hateful–toward others, even so-called loved ones.

Born of two acts of idolatry–Dorian’s prayer to the false Egyptian god and his narcissistic worship of his own youth and beauty–the portrait is a prison which both incarcerates and exhibits Dorian’s disfigured soul. Dorian feels contrite each time he sees the portrait—and who among us, if we could see the marks of sin upon our own souls, would not feel likewise? And just as we ignore and hide from the full effects of our sins by means of countless justifications and obfuscations, Dorian conceals his portrait with a screen, mortified at the thought of anyone seeing his true face, which even he finds repugnant.

Ultimately, Dorian repents, and throws himself on God’s mercy—so, in a sense, the film has a happy ending. Nonetheless, Dorian dies alone in a terrible fashion; his life as a whole does not provide an example anyone will likely wish to imitate. His deathbed prayer to the one true God is quite possibly his sole thoroughly well-intended and praiseworthy act—and it is presented as such.

In terms of suitability for children, the pronounced grotesqueness of the painting (and some of Dorian’s misbehavior, though the majority is merely suggested) is probably sufficient reason to forestall showing this film to children until they are a bit older–perhaps teenaged? As with all media, it’s best to watch it yourself first, and thus make a fully informed decision. Happy screening!




Calvary on the Docks: Catholic Themes in On the Waterfront

“You want to know what’s wrong with our waterfront? … It’s making the love of a buck, the cushy job, more important than the love of man. It’s forgetting that every fellow down here is your brother in Christ. But remember, Christ is always with you … And He’s saying with all of you, if you do it to the least of mine, you do it to me.”

-Father Barry, On the Waterfront


Though it may at first glance seem like nothing more than a sophisticated gangster movie, Elia Kazan’s 1954 film On the Waterfront has profoundly Catholic themes simmering just below the story’s surface. In fact, it can be argued that the film is a meditation on the Communion of Saints masquerading as a tale about a labor union commandeered by truly grave sinners. Don’t expect to hear the phrase “communion of saints” uttered by any of the characters, because you won’t find it within the script. However, this concept is both implicit and incessant; it is embroidered over the entire fabric of the film.

The basic plot follows Terry Malloy on his journey from small-time thug to star witness before the waterfront crime commission. In the opening scenes, John Friendly—the corrupt boss of the local longshoremen’s union—and his gang of crooks murder Joey Doyle, a union member who was set to testify against them. Terry plays a small, but integral, part in the killing. Of course, there is no evidence linking any of the perpetrators to the crime. The victim’s sister, Edie, is determined to bring the killers to justice. The local priest, Father Barry, also gets involved, encouraging members to stand up against union corruption.

Most of the characters in On the Waterfront are members of the union, which should, in theory, provide various benefits in exchange for their contributions. The same characters, knowingly or not, are also part of a less-tangible, more abstract, but equally real, and far more important organization, so to speak—the Communion of Saints. Two characters in the film are attuned to this reality and behave accordingly; both are practicing Catholics—Father Barry and Edie. These two characters act as champions of virtue, persuading others to become better citizens.

Within the microcosm of the film, good citizenship within the Communion of Saints can be attained by devoting proper attention to the Four Cs: Charity, Conscience, Confession, and Conversion. The film’s hero, Terry Malloy, journeys through all four.



After Terry advises Edie to abandon the search for Joey’s killers, he justifies his position, saying, “I’m only trying to help you out. I’m trying to keep you from getting hurt, what more do you want me to do?” Edie responds: “Much more. Much, much, much more.” Indeed, in the moral code of the film, the Golden Rule is of foremost importance, and people are honor-bound to assist others. After all, as Edie says: “Shouldn’t everybody care about everybody else? I mean, isn’t everybody a part of everybody else?”

Father Barry states the film’s philosophy well:

Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up … Every time the mob puts the crusher on a good man, tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen – it’s a crucifixion. And anybody who sits around and lets it happen, keeps silent about something he knows has happened, shares the guilt of it just as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of Our Lord …

Putting the duty to actively care for others more succinctly, Edie asks, “Did you ever hear of a saint hiding in a church?”

Conversely, the failure to act charitably toward others is painted as a grave offense with harsh consequences. “That’s what makes people mean and difficult,” Edie opines. “People don’t care enough about them.” We find Terry, in contrast to Edie, living in a decidedly uncharitable manner at the film’s outset; when Edie asks him whether he is on the side of the gangsters or those whom they oppress, he replies: “Me? I’m with me.” He even tries to convert Edie to his self-centered mentality: “Quit worrying about the truth all the time and start worrying about yourself.” Her response to this suggestion, which runs completely counter to both the morality of the film and Catholic doctrine, is to connect Terry’s low social status with his egocentric ethos: “No wonder everybody calls you a bum.”

Terry got to be a bum, not only through his lack of charity toward others, but also due to others’ lack of charity toward him. In Terry’s famous monologue, he confronts his brother Charley for failing to stand up to his mob associates, and instead encouraging Terry to take the dive that prematurely ended his boxing career. “You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.” With abject regret, he continues, “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” Terry has no particular accomplishments or assets. The only person who respects him is a neighborhood kid; everybody else considers him a bum, just as Edie said. The reason? “It was you, Charley,” Terry bluntly concludes. Had Charley acted charitably toward Terry, things might have turned out differently.





As we grow in charity, our consciences become better-attuned. This is certainly true of Terry Malloy. As he begins to learn about the importance of charity–principally from his associations with Edie and Father Barry–he begins to feel pangs of conscience for his role in Joey Doyle’s murder.

The film emphasizes the importance of a well-formed conscience directly and repeatedly. When Terry goes to Father Barry for advice, Father Barry at first speaks passionately about Terry’s “brothers,” who are being exploited by the very men Terry’s silence protects—again, alluding to the Communion of Saints. Then he cuts himself off, saying, “Nevermind. I’m not asking you to do anything, it’s your own conscience that’s got to do the asking.” A mere fifteen minutes later Edie says something similar: “I don’t want you to do anything. You let your conscience tell you what to do.”

A properly formed conscience is, in fact, so important that it has its own totem: Joey Doyle’s jacket. Pop Doyle passes it from Joey, who was set to be the first conscientious actor against the mob, to Kayo Dugan. Over the course of the time Dugan has the jacket, his conscience is shaped, and he makes a turnabout; he shifts from believing Joey should have “learn[ed] to keep his mouth shut,” to being the next man in line to testify. After Dugan is murdered for breaking his silence, the jacket is handed over to Terry. He, in turn, experiences a similar conscientious transformation, leading to his own testimony before the commission, and, ultimately, his final showdown with John Friendly.





The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that every sin, no matter how private or personal, harms the entirety of the Communion of Saints (953). The normal method for seeking absolution is via Confession. Likewise, in On the Waterfront, confession of covert criminal activity is essential to restoring the health of the community, the entirety of which is damaged by said crimes. One might say the entire story hangs on the importance of this principle: only Terry’s confession of two key crimes/sins—namely, Joey Doyle’s murder, and John Friendly’s racketeering operations—can restore proper order based on charity, and rectify the harm done to the community.

After receiving Joey’s jacket, Terry takes the first steps toward confession. Most appropriately, Terry first seeks his priest after deciding to come clean. But, just as in the Confiteor we confess our sins before all the saints, Terry cannot confess to Father Barry alone. Indeed, the latter advises Terry to immediately confess his part in Joey Doyle’s murder to Edie, which Terry does. Interestingly, this second confession is almost entirely drowned out by the sound of a steamship whistle, making it, like the confessions of our fellow parishioners, confidential. The parallels between Terry’s confession to Edie and those of a sacramental nature are amplified by the two select phrases we are allowed to hear: “Honest to God,” and “I swear to God.”

Terry’s final confession, of course, must be before the general public—the entire Communion of Saints—in the form of his testimony before the crime commission.





All of the above steps lead naturally toward conversion. In this overtly secular film, however, conversion is not explicitly religious in nature, but, rather, is manifested by a transformation from egocentrism and apathy to dynamic charity and virtuous action.

We first witness the beginnings of Terry’s conversion process during Father Barry’s impromptu eulogy of Kayo Dugan. When one of John Friendly’s trigger men throws garbage at Father Barry, Terry scolds him, saying, “Hey, don’t do that,” and “Let him finish.” When the same hood tries to throw something else, Terry socks him in the face. He does all of this in the sight of John Friendly and his union thugs—all of whom have been, up to this point, Terry’s associates.

The next major step in Terry’s conversion process comes when he decides not to pursue violent revenge against John Friendly for murdering his brother Charley. Instead, he chooses to take the high road and seek justice by testifying before the crime commission. His actual testimony is yet another big step—he names Joey Doyle’s killers in front of the murderers themselves, as well as a packed courtroom and rolling cameras. These two steps demonstrate his transformation from a self-centered, opportunist bum to a responsible citizen within the Communion of Saints.

But the ultimate evidence of this change occurs during the final showdown with John Friendly at the film’s finale. Friendly has a whole crew of hired muscle to help him win his fistfight with Terry, and Terry is inevitably beaten nearly unconscious. The other longshoremen, however, are moved by Terry’s courage and integrity, and decide to take a stand of their own—they refuse to go back to work unless Terry, who has been blackballed by Friendly, goes with them. Bruised, bloodied, and dizzy with pain, Terry drags himself down the dock and onto the job, affirming the men’s ultimatum, and effectively destroying Friendly’s grip on the union in one swift stroke.

Terry hereby performs the preeminent act of charity—he sacrifices himself for the sake of others. In the closing scene, he and his fellow longshoremen march through the warehouse door, just as though they were marching through the gates of heaven. The final image is that of the door closing, with John Friendly vociferously on the outside.

As stated before, this is an overtly secular film; however, there are clearly strong Catholic themes woven throughout. Furthermore, it indubitably promotes virtue, in stark contrast to the vast volume of vice spewing from most modern blockbusters. Although some of the content makes the film too gritty for children, I believe most adult Catholics will find it to be edifying, perhaps even inspiring. In these outrageously self-centered times, any creative work that reminds us of our connectedness with, and obligations to, the rest of humanity can be like a cool, clean drink of water on a parched tongue. If you find yourself feeling thirsty, give On the Waterfront a try.




%d bloggers like this: