On this day in 1946, the movie It’s A Wonderful Life premiered in New York at the Globe Theatre. Seventy years after its release, the story of how George Bailey arrived at his joyous epiphany is still one of the most popular holiday films ever made.
The film was based on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern called “The Greatest Gift.” After unsuccessful attempts to get the story published, Stern mailed 200 copies of the story to friends and family during the holiday season in 1943 as a Christmas card. After the story came to the attention of executives at RKO Pictures, they bought the rights to the story for $10,000 (1).
One rhetorically interesting aspect of the film is the dialogue of its protagonist George Bailey. In one of film’s most famous scenes, George pleads with his antagonist, the scheming misanthrope Mr. Potter:
Just remember this, Mr. Potter: that this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?
Notice the intentional overuse of conjunctions here. This rhetorical device is called polysyndeton. The added conjunctions slow the list down, emphasizing each individual item. The repetition of conjunctions gives the reader the feeling that things are piling up and creates a tone that is more formal than a typical list.
The film’s dialogue features polysyndeton at another dramatic point. It’s Black Tuesday, October 29, 1932, and George is trying to convince the citizens of Bedford Falls to resist the temptation to withdraw all their money from his savings and loan:
No, but you . . . you . . . you’re thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here. Your money’s in Joe’s house . . . right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others.
The close cousin and opposite of polysyndeton is asyndeton, where instead of adding conjunctions to a list, a writer removes them all. Comparing the following lists might show us why Julius Caesar chose asyndeton for his most famous proclamation:
Typical List: I came, I saw, and I conquered.
List with Polysyndeton: I came and I saw and I conquered.
List with Asyndeton: I came, I saw, I conquered.
Instead of slowing down the list, as with polysyndeton, asyndeton has the effect of speeding things up. Asyndeton also has the effect of making the list seem like it is continuing into infinity, as if there is more there than meets the eye.
Today’s Challenge: A Monologue and a List and a Lot of Conjunctions
What is a hypothetical dramatic situation in which an individual would be unhappy with another individual or group? Write a dramatic monologue in which a speaker expresses unhappiness with the individual or audience that he/she is addressing. Before you begin writing, identify a hypothetical dramatic situation in which a speaker would be unhappy and who the speaker would be unhappy with, such as a teacher who is angry with a tardy student or a customer who is unhappy that the Slurpee machine at his local 7/11 is empty. In the monologue include some lists using either polysyndeton or asyndeton for dramatic effect. Try to capture the emotion in the voice of the character. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
1-Ervin, Kathleen A. It’s a Wonderful Life. Failure Magazine 1 Dec. 2001. http://failuremag.com/feature/article/its_a_wonderful_life/P2/.