The Hockey Sweater is a quintessential Canadian short story. It was written by Roch Carrier in 1979, and has been read- or watched- by a majority of Canadian kids over the years. It was originally entitled Une Abominable Feuille D'erable Sur La Glace (An Abominable Maple Leaf On The Ice) but the name was simplified to The Hockey Sweater when the story was translated into English by Sheila Fischman. In 1980, the National Film Board of Canada made an animated short of the story and called it The Sweater.
The short story was written by Carrier about an actual incident which occurred in his childhood, and is a celebration of Canada's enduring love for the game of hockey. It also highlights the oldest rivalry in hockey- the one between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Their fans are rabidly partisan, and ne'er the twain shall meet. Lastly, The Hockey Sweater is a love letter to the legendary player Maurice "Rocket" Richard, revered by generations of young hockey players and fans. Fun fact: for a number of years, a line from Carrier's story was printed on the back of Canada's five dollar bill:
Without further ado, here's The Sweater, narrated by the author and original sweater wearer, Roch Carrier:
The Nose is one Nikolai Gogol's best known works, published in 1836 (others include The Inspector General and Taras Bulba). It is an odd mix of real places and fantastical happenings which makes for interesting reading. The story takes place in St Petersburg, and many of the places mentioned are actual sites in that city, such as Isaac Bridge where the barber throws the nose into the river, and Kazan Cathedral, where Kovalyov confronts his nose. Many of the street names are actual ones as well. Yet, while taking place in the "real" world, The Nose is the tale of a man whose nose one day decides to leave his face and travel about the city in a carriage. Also, the nose seems able to change size as necessary for the events taking place in the story. So what does all this mean?
It has been suggested that in this story Gogol was poking fun at himself, as he had a prominent and rather oddly shaped nose. Also, at one time through political connections, Gogol- like Kovalyov- was appointed to a position for which he was completely unqualified. Kovalyov is a Collegiate Assessor, while Gogol was made Professor of Medieval History at Saint Petersburg University, employment which ended disastrously because he had virtually no knowledge of medieval history.
The Nose also mocks vanity and ego, as Kovalyov faces (no pun intended) the prospect of living the rest of his life with no nose. Kovalyov is an extremely vain person, who fancies himself quite the ladies man- and quite the catch, marriage-wise. This is why he's been holding back from marrying Madame Podtochina's daughter: he thinks that with all his advantages, he can secure a better match. Several times when Kovalyov is searching for his nose, he sees pretty women whom he automatically starts to flirt with, only to draw back in frustrated embarrassment when he remembers his lack.
Closely related to this is Gogol's mockery of pretension and self-importance in the story. Kovalyov, despite having no rank, styles himself as "The Major" and swanks about in a uniform with fake medals. It's a huge blow to his amour propre to be made a figure of fun by the loss of his nose. He bemoans the fact that it hadn't been an arm or a leg; even- he thinks- if he had lost his nose in an admirable way, such as in battle, it would be less embarrassing. As it stands, though, having no nose simply because it decided one day to leave his face just makes him ridiculous. Even worse, when he tracks down his nose, it, too, is going about with a fake uniform and title... one that outranks Kovalyov's. This makes him even angrier. Kovalyov's ego takes another hit when he goes to the newspaper office to post an ad about his missing nose. There, the self-important Kovalyov is forced to wait with shop-keepers, porters, and out-of-work coachmen and housemaids, all looking to place ads in the paper. Also, when he talks to the clerk, his crisis is given no more respect than a lost poodle.
The Nose doesn't just satirize personal pretension, but that of Russian society at this time as well. Kovalyov, living in a society obsessed with rank and outward appearance, is naturally obsessed with his appearance and rank. Part of the disaster of his situation is that he feels unable to go to the soirees of several important, titled people, which are necessary to enhance his social standing and advance his position. Being competent at one's job is not required, merely looking the part and knowing the right people. This social facade is demonstrated by Kovalyov's nose; it is going about in the guise of a ranking civil servant and even Kovalyov, who knows the truth about it, hesitates to approach his nose at the cathedral, intimidated by its important title and spiffy uniform.
Gogol also takes a jab at the corruption and general uselessness of government bureaucracy. When Kovalyov attempts to get help from the police, he gets the runaround from various officials who have different titles- Inspectors and Commissioners- but all seem equally useless, and content to be so. We also get a glimpse of the corruption in the person of the Inspector of Police, who is complacently taking bribes and spending his days eating heavy meals and taking naps. None of these things have ever bothered Kovalyov before- indeed, he is part of the corrupt system. Then, however, he has a situation which threatens his place in society, and because of the very system from which he has previously benefited, can't get any competent help. Selfish to the core, he is only troubled by these things when they affect his life directly, being completely oblivious to the troubles of others. And, in the end, when Kovalyov gets his nose back, he reverts to being the same person he was before. His experience has not changed him, or caused him to reevaluate his life in any way. Rather, we see that he buys more ribbons with which to bedeck his uniform and returns to his habitual flirting with women. Gogol seems to be saying that human nature is inherently selfish and not prone to change unless forced to do so. Those are my thoughts on Nikolai Gogol's The Nose, which is a ridiculous story with some semi-serious things to say about vanity, false pride, and social facades.
Kovalyov finds the Inspector of Police who, having gorged himself on food offered to him as bribes, is about to take a postprandial nap. He is not pleased about being interrupted and, in response to Kovalyov's tale of woe, says that no respectable person would lose his nose. Insulted by this attack on his rank and social position, Kovalyov stalks out in dignified outrage and returns to his home. There he broods over the loss of his nose, saying that it would have been much less embarrassing to lose an arm or a leg; even if he had lost his nose in battle, he wouldn't feel so ridiculous. He tries to figure out how his nose could have left his face, eventually settling on witchcraft as the most likely explanation. He suspects a society matron- Mrs. Grigoryevna- of being responsible because he wouldn't marry her daughter.
Just then, a policeman arrives at Kovalyov's door; it just happens to be the same officer who the baker met at the bridge in Part I. He asks if Kovalyov is the gentleman who lost his nose. Kovalyov admits that he is and the officer tells him that it has been found. It was attempting to leave the country by stagecoach, using the passport of a civil servant. Peering at him closely, the officer realized that he was actually a nose and detained him. He tells Kovalyov that he thinks the baker, whom he also suspects of drunkenness, is somehow responsible. The officer unwraps the nose and returns it to a jubilant Kovalyov, who gives him a reward.
After the officer leaves, Kovalyov examines his nose and finds it undamaged, so he rushes to the mirror and tries to reattach it to his face. To his dismay, it won't stay on no matter what he tries. In desperation, he sends his servant out for the doctor. The doctor examines him and tells Kovalyov that he can't fix it, and that trying to might cause more problems. Kovalyov can't accept this; he mixes in the best society and is expected at two soirees this very day. How can he make an appearance with no nose? He begs the doctor to try to reattach it, offering him a large sum of money to do it. The doctor refuses, telling Kovalyov to let nature take its course, and then leaves.
Not knowing what else to do, Kovalyov writes a letter to Mrs. Grigoryevna, telling her that he knows she is responsible for his nose running about disguised as a civil servant, and demanding that she remove the black magic which she has used on him. He gets a letter in reply from a clearly confused and mystified Mrs. Grigoryevna, who indignantly denies having any knowledge of this strange affair, or of having consorted with his nose on any occasion. Recognizing the truth of her words, Kovalyov is left without any idea as to how his nose left his face and, more important, how to get it back on.
Meanwhile, rumours about the nose's escapades have started to circulate about the town and naturally these rumours get embroidered and exaggerated. People begin to say that the nose can be seen taking a stroll along Nevsky Avenue every day, and crowds start to gather along the street daily, attempting to catch a glimpse of it. Vendors cash in, selling snacks and renting prime viewing spots. Then someone says that the nose has been seen walking in Tavrichesky Park, and the crowds migrate there. Possible nose sightings become a staple of conversation in every level of society.
The Nose is a three part short story written by Nikolai Gogol in 1836. In the first part, a St. Petersburg barber named Ivan Yakovlevitch and his wife are eating breakfast. The baker is shocked to find, baked into one of his wife's bread rolls, a nose. His wife, who is extremely crabby, angrily accuses him of being drunk and cutting the nose off one of his customers while he was shaving them. Ivan recognizes the nose as belonging to one of his customers: Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov. His wife tells him that she doesn't want a nose hanging about her house and demands that he get rid of it, and threatens to tell the police about it. Ivan is bewildered as to how his customer's nose got into his wife's bread, and is deathly afraid of the police showing up to question him about it. He wraps the nose in a cloth and leaves the house, hoping to find somewhere to get rid of it. Unfortunately, every time he attempts to drop it on the street, he meets up with someone he knows; when he does finally manage to "lose" the wrapped object, a police officer sees it and demands he pick up his trash. Ivan eventually makes his way to St. Isaac's Bridge and, leaning over pretending to look at the fish, drops the package into the water. As he leaves the bridge, Ivan runs into another policeman who suspiciously asks him what he was up to. He attempts to convince the officer that he was checking the strength of the current but the officer doesn't believe him. Part I ends without telling us how this is resolved.
Part II starts out at the home of Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov. He wakes up in the morning and when he looks in the mirror he is alarmed to discover that his nose has disappeared from his face. This is especially traumatic for Kovalyov because he is extremely vain and self-important (he styles himself as Major Kovalyov, though he doesn't actually have a military rank). The loss of his nose, in addition to any other concerns, makes him look- and feel- ridiculous. He hurriedly gets dressed and goes to see the Head of Police. He attempts to keep his face hidden as he travels along the street.
Suddenly Kovalyov is shocked to see his nose coming out of a house dressed in a military uniform and plumed hat. His nose jumps into a carriage and rides away, with Kovalyov in hot pursuit. He follows the carriage to Kazan Cathedral and enters the church in search of his nose and sees the uniformed figure standing near a wall, apparently praying. Kovalyov is uncertain how he should approach his nose, as it now appears to be a high ranking officer- perhaps a state councilor. He gathers his courage and hesitantly interrupts the nose, who turns and asks him what he wants. Kovalyov tells the uniformed nose that he is an important person with high connections and that it's simply not done for people of his social position to go about nose-less. The nose appears not to understand what he's talking about, so Kovalyov is forced to be more blunt and claim ownership of his nose. His nose says that Kovalyov is mistaken; he is a person in his own right and in any case, he has nothing in common with Kovalyov whom he can see from his uniform is in a different government department. The nose then turns away and goes back to his prayers.
Kovalyov doesn't know what to do, and is suddenly distracted by the sight of a pretty girl, accompanied by an elderly lady and a footman, passing by him. Kovalyov, who fancies himself a ladies' man, prepares to turn on the charm and flirt with the girl, then suddenly recoils, remembering that he has no nose on his face. Humiliated and angry, he turns back to denounce his nose as a fraud and scoundrel only to find that the nose has slipped out. Kovalyov hurries out of the cathedral, craning his neck to try to see his nose, but there are so many carriages and people on the avenue, he can't catch a glimpse of it. Who he does see are several important officials with whom he's acquainted. Not wanting them to see him nose-less, Kovalyov hails a cab and orders the driver to take him to the Chief of Police. Entering the Hall, he asks to see the Police Commissionaire but is told the Commissionaire left a few minutes before.
Frustrated, Kovalyov climbs back into the cab and ponders what to do. He begins to fear that his nose may try to leave the city, making it almost impossible to find. He decides to place an ad in the newspaper, containing a description of his nose and requesting anyone seeing it to turn it in. He orders the driver to take him to the newspaper office as quickly as possible. Once there, he tries to order his ad with the newspaper's clerk while keeping his face covered with his handkerchief and declining to give his name. He angrily explains to the clerk that his nose is travelling about town, calling itself a state councilor. He wants it caught and brought back where it belongs. The clerk tells Kovalyov that he can't print an ad like that in the paper; too many false stories already escape editorial and end up causing libel suits. The clerk refuses to take Kovalyov seriously until he, in exasperation, shows him his face. Finally believing him, the clerk still says that he can't help him and advises seeing a doctor. Kovalyov angrily leaves the newspaper office and goes in search of the Inspector of Police.
As I mentioned in my summary of "The Sister Years," the short story is found in a collection of works by Nathaniel Hawthorne entitled Twice Told Tales. This collection was published in two volumes with the first being published in 1837, and the second in 1842. The stories contained in Twice Told Tales had all appeared previously in magazines and other publications, which is why Hawthorne called the collection by that name. He lifted the term from one of Shakespeare's plays, The Life And Death Of King John, which contains the line,"Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale." Which suggests that Hawthorne was making a jest at his own expense for repackaging and selling his older stories. If so, it's about the only humour to be found in proximity to The Sister Years, which is not a laugh-inducing tale.
Full disclosure: I'm not the greatest admirer of Nathaniel Hawthorne's work. Which isn't to suggest that he's not a skilled writer, because he obviously is; he's just not my cup of tea. The only thing other than this story which I've read of his is The Scarlet Letter, and frankly, I didn't particularly enjoy it. It was well written, and certainly had things to say- and questions to pose- about human nature, morality, and hypocricy, and I would never suggest that it wasn't worthwhile reading. It's just that the book left me with the same feeling that I experience while reading Wuthering Heights or watching Gone With The Wind: a strong desire to smack some sense into all of the main characters. In any case, I'm reviewing The Sister Years not The Scarlet Letter, so here goes...
First of all, I really do like the imagery which Hawthorne uses: the Old Year as a bitterly weary woman, dragging a year's worth of baggage along with her. And the New Year- a young, carefree girl with high hopes for the coming twelve months. It's also moving when Old Year lists some of the things she has in her pack, such as vials of the tears of people who lost loved ones during the year. As she talks of these things, we begin to see why she is so beaten-down and world-weary. It creates a dramatic contrast with the New Year, who knows none of these griefs and sorrows, and carries none of the previous year's burdens- yet. We know that this will swiftly change. I also like how the Old Year mentions that she had the fads and crazes from the year past in her box, explaining that the Years can carry trifles away with them, but not anything of real value and worth. This is true: the things in life which really matter are things which cannot be carried away or corrupted by the passage of time. As for what I didn't like about the story... all of the Old Year's memories and mementoes are sad and bad ones. All of them. Every one of them is the result of human failure, whether it is the betrayed loves, the broken promises, the crimes, or the wars. There is certainly an element of truth in this; each year contains more than its fair share of horror, pain, and suffering. But there are good, beautiful, and wondrous things in the world as well. The Old Year- and Nathaniel Hawthorne- make no allowance for or acknowledgement of this. The Old Year has apparently carried only the sorrows and tribulations along with her, but what of the joys and triumphs which the year contained? The story takes a very dim view of human nature, detailing mankind's failures; betrayal, greed, violence, folly and ingratitude... these things are true and present in all of us to a degree. But people are also capable of great kindness, generousity, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. How is it that the Old Year has retained all of the negative things and none of the positive ones? I find the portrayal of the year in The Sister Years to be incomplete and ultimately unconvincing due to the fact that it concentrates on the bad to the exclusion of anything good. 2016 has been a year of many ups and downs. There have been horrific outrages, and terrible tragedies. There have also been many amusing, amazing, and lovely things which have occurred. A lot of things have happened which we don't know yet if they'll end up being positive or negative, though it's fascinating to speculate. In short, this year has been a mixed bag like any other-like life itself- and to ignore all the bad in order to declare 2016 to be wonderful, or to disregard all the good and condemn the year as an awful one would be equally unsound. Whatever occurs, each year is a blessing which should be lived to its fullest, not feared and regretted.
"The Sister Years" is a short story written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and it appears in a collection of his short stories entitled Twice-Told Tales. The story takes place between 11 pm and 12 o'clock midnight on New Years Eve. The Old Year- a tired, care-worn woman- decides to spend her last few minutes upon the earth resting and sitting on the steps of Salem's City Hall. Her description is one of infinite exhaustion and grief: she looks "weary of body, and sad of heart," and her clothes are in very bad condition, "having been exposed to much foul weather and rough usage." She is weighed down by a large and heavy box which she carries along with her, as well as a notebook of sorts. As she sits on the steps waiting for midnight, a pretty young woman comes lightly traipsing along the street. The contrast with the Old Year could not be more noticeable; there is a "smiling cheerfulness" about her face, her light beribboned clothes are frivolous rather than practical, and she has "so much promise and such an indescribable hopefulness in her aspect, that hardly anybody could meet her without anticipating some very desirable thing." This is the New Year, and she cheerfully greets her sister and sits beside her on the steps.
New Year remarks that Old Year looks almost tired to death and asks her what has caused this. Old Year wearily remarks that it's all recorded in the Book of Chronicles- the notebook she carries- but that it makes tiresome reading and New Year will soon gain knowledge of such matters through personal experience. When New Year inquires further, Old Year opens her Chronicle and reads to her of the tumult, political unrest, and war which she has experienced over the course of the year. New Year suggests hopefully that the upcoming year may bring much better things, but Old Year tells her not to get her hopes up. She closes her book and prepares to leave her younger sister, once again picking up her heavy pack. New Year asks her what she carries which makes her burden so heavy; all she herself carries is a light basket. Old Year says her pack contains trifles which she has picked up in her travels: fashions and fads which have come and gone, pretty women's good looks which she has taken, and men's dark hair which she has traded for grey. It also contains bottles of the tears of the bereaved, old love letters, and thousands of broken promises. Old Year tells her sister that what weighs her down the most is a large package of disappointed hopes which, though once light and bouyant, are now a dead weight.
New Year says that she carries some hopes in her basket, and plans to do use them to improve mankind and bring them happiness. Old Year says that she still has a few such resolutions in her pack, but they have grown stale and musty from disuse. She then rises and bids her younger sister farewell, advising her that, however welcoming people seem to be of her, and whatever good she does them, she should not expect gratitude. People will soon be complaining about her, and wishing for another New Year to replace her in the hopes of it bringing them better things. Then, as the clock strikes twelve, the Old Year takes her leave, going to her yearned-for rest, and the New Year steps forth upon the earth with rather more caution and trepidation than before.
Last weekend I went home to my parents' place for our annual Christmas tree decorating get together. Besides my parents and I, three more of my sisters were there, and my sister's fiance, to help with the tree. This is always a fun time, and it's the event which makes me feel like the Christmas season has really started. Our family always makes a big deal out of this... well, actually, we make a big deal out of everything surrounding Christmas... and have certain traditions which accompany the bedecking of the tree. One of these is that we open our grandparents' old radio/ record player- it's the one time a year that it's used- and play the old Christmas LPs that we've listened to while decorating the tree every year that I can remember. Digital downloads, CDs, forsooth! In my head, memories of tree decorating are always accompanied by a soundtrack of crackly vinyl.
One of these records is the Mario Lanza Christmas album, while others include Gene Autry and Rosemary Clooney, Elvis, and Frank and Bing. And then, of course, there's the First Christmas Record For Children, which was always one of our favourites. I think it belonged to my mother as a child, but in any case, it's been played every year that I can recall. It has a variety of songs and stories on it, sung and told by entertainers who were popular when the record was first released, in the '50's.
There are selections by Rosemary Clooney and Gene Autry, Doris Day, Jimmy Boyd, Mitch Miller, and even Captain Kangaroo. But by far, the most popular track on the record for us when we were kids was a story told by Red Skelton, entitled The Little Christmas Tree. This is a story about a tree which has been cut down, taken into a house and decorated by a rather unthankful family, and is wondering rather bitterly if this is what his purpose in life really was. And then he has a meeting with Santa Claus. We all loved this story as children- oh, who am I kidding- we still love it. And quote it: it has some great quotable lines. The record was released on CD in 1999, but the track of The Little Christmas Tree had been removed from the recording. I'm not sure why this was done... maybe there were some copyright issues... but I have a sneaking suspicion that maybe there might be another reason. Skelton's story was really a product of its time; it had an overtly Christian message (Santa tells the Christmas tree that every year he comes back, hoping to find people living not by man's law, but by the Ten Commandments) and also an anti-communist one. Relating his travels, Santa tells of flying over a "vast, dark place" where he runs head-on into an iron curtain, and two of his reindeer are knocked out. As kids, we had no idea what the iron curtain was, but we used to quote the lines all the time. It wasn't until later that we realized what Santa was actually talking about. If this is why the producers of the CD left it off the recording, well, shame on them. And no one liked it; I went to Amazon and checked out the reviews for the 1999 release, and literally every one I read mentioned their disappointment that The Little Christmas Tree was missing- obviously we weren't the only family who loved the story. Fortunately, for those not lucky enough to own the record, it's been put on You Tube numerous times. Enjoy.
Philip Van Doren Stern was an author and historian who specialized in Civil War history. He wrote many books on the subject, and also compiled the writings of Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Allen Poe, and Henry David Thoreau. A well respected scholar, he might seem an unlikely person to produce a dark, supernatural tale about a man contemplating suicide on Christmas eve, and perhaps others thought so too, as he struggled to find a publisher for it. Ultimately unable to sell it, in 1943 Stern had The Greatest Gift printed up as a booklet which he handed out to friends at Christmas.
One ofStern's little booklets ended up in the hands of a producer at RKO Pictures, who showed it to Cary Grant. Grant was interested in starring in a movie based on it, so RKO purchased the movie rights from Stern in 1944 for ten thousand dollars. The project never got off the ground, however, and in 1945 RKO sold the rights to Liberty Films for the same amount of money. Liberty Films was Frank Capra's production company. If you read my summary of the plot of The Greatest Gift, then you probably don't need me to tell you that Capra used the story as the basis for his most famous movie, It's A Wonderful Life. Though there are of course differences, the central plot device is the same: a suicidal man is shown what the world would be like if he had never lived. Some other plot points which made it into the screenplay: the scene on the bridge, the tree injured by George, the death of his brother because George wasn't there to save him, and the scene where he bursts into his house, shouting for Mary and his kids. Some scenes seem to be taken almost directly from the booklet's illustrations:
There are also, of course, many differences as well. It's A Wonderful Life adds a backstory which the short story doesn't contain. This is a good thing, because it allows us to care about George (Bailey, not Pratt; most of the names are at least partially changed as well) in a way we can't in The Greatest Gift when we meet him for the first time on the bridge. In the movie, we witness George being pushed to the very edge by circumstances- and an evil man- beyond his control, and understand why he is so desperate and hopeless. In the short story, all we're told is that George feels that his life has been wasted, and that he has never done anything important, so wants to end it all. This is less understandable; most of us are living ordinary, unremarkable- from a worldly point of view- lives, and it's hardly a reason to toss yourself off a bridge. And to contemplate suicide over such paltry problems when he has a wife and children to support, as well as parents and a brother who love him, seems more selfish than sympathetic to me. Yet another reason why I would be unsuited to a career in counseling... telling people to get over themselves is probably not an acceptable form of therapy.
There are a lot more people in the movie than in the story, and those that make the transition to film are generally changed in character and/or role. For example, in The Greatest Gift, Mr. Potter is a very minor character- merely the proprietor of the photographic studio where the young Pratt brothers got their picture taken. In It's A Wonderful Life, Potter is the poisonous old coot who tries to destroy George's life. One part of the short story which I think does work better than the movie is the part describing how Mary's life turned out due to the absence of George in it. In It's A Wonderful Life, without George Mary has become an old maid (and a librarian), and the movie treats this as if it's a terrible thing. Now, maybe it's because I'm single, but it seems to me a bit much to classify spinsterhood as a horrible tragedy. I mean, come on now, being unmarried isn't the end of the world... though it does seem to have caused Mary's hair to have been molded into an immovable bun, and ruined her eyesight, to boot:
In The Greatest Gift, however, Mary has ended up married to her other suitor, Art, who has become a drunk. How much more affecting is George's anguish when he realizes that, due to his absence from Mary's life, she is tied to a brutish sot who is making her life miserable. This is a far, far worse tragedy than her merely being alone. Imagine if, in It's A Wonderful Life, Mary had ended up married to Sam who, though nice, had a wandering eye... imagine how much more guilty and frantic George would have been. It would have lent even more urgency to his desire to return to his once despised life.
In conclusion, I would say that, while I will always love It's A Wonderful Life best, The Greatest Gift has much to recommend it. It's certainly interesting to compare the movie with it's source material and take note of what was kept, and what was changed and/or added to. Most of all, both story and film portray an important truth: no life is worthless or insignificant. In the words of John Donne, "No man is an island"; no matter how unimportant we may consider ourselves to be, our lives are inextricably linked to others, and our absence- or theirs- would cause changes and damages which we cannot even fathom. In short, life is a gift which we should never despise or take for granted.
The Greatest Gift is a short story which was written by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1943. Unable to find a magazine interested in publishing it, he paid to have it printed into pamphlets and sent them to friends and family in place of Christmas cards. The story takes place on Christmas eve in a small town, and its central character is a man by the name of George Pratt. Though the town is alight with cheerful, brightly coloured lights, Pratt is not feeling the Christmas spirit. He is, in fact, completely miserable. He finds himself on the town's bridge, staring at the dark, swirling water. Mesmerized, he leans over the bridge railing, farther and farther.
Suddenly George hears a voice saying, "I wouldn't do that if I were you," and turns to see a stout elderly gentleman in shabby clothes. The man is extremely plain, except for his kind, clear blue eyes, which are observing Pratt with interest. He is carrying a satchel which George recognizes as a salesman's kit, and Pratt indignantly supposes that the man is going to try to sell him something. To his shock, however, the little man seems to know what George had been planning to do... he tells him that he shouldn't think of doing such a thing- especially on Christmas eve- urging him to consider his wife, Mary, and his mother as well. George doesn't understand how the stranger can know his wife's name, but the man tells him that it's his business to know, and it's why he came tonight. George says bitterly that, since he knows so much, maybe he can give him one good reason why he should live. The man points out that he has a wife and kids, a steady job at the bank, and is young and healthy. This doesn't console George; he says he's trapped in this little town, has done nothing important with his life, and was even turned down by the army. He concludes by saying that he'd be better off dead, and he wishes that he was. In fact, he wishes that he'd never been born.
Oddly, the shabby little man perks up at George's bitter statement. He says that that's the solution, and that George will have his wish: he's never been born. Pratt demands to know what he's talking about, and the man says that he's never been born- has no wife or kids, no parents, no responsibilities... no troubles. George, losing patience with such nonsense, stomps off, but the man chases him and gives him his satchel. He tells Pratt that it will help keep doors from being slammed in his face. George scoffs; he knows everyone in town, and no one would refuse to let him in their home. Nevertheless, the man insists that George take the satchel, showing him that it contains some sample hair brushes. He instructs Pratt to offer the lady of whatever house he's at a brush for free, telling her that it's a complementary sample. Exasperatedly putting the brushes back into the satchel which has been forced on him, George turns to give the man the bag back, but to his bewilderment, the stranger has disappeared. Unnerved and cold, George heads for home. On his way, he passes by Hank Biddle's prized maple tree, which sometime before he had accidentally injured by hitting it with his car. Stopping to inspect the damage, Pratt is puzzled because he can't find the place where the bark was torn off. Feeling confused, he walks through town until he passes the bank where he works, and is shocked to see the place is in total darkness, with a For Sale sign on it.
Philip Van Doren Stern
Unable to grasp what has happened, George notices that a light is still on in the nearby real estate office owned by Jim Silva, a man George knows well. He goes in, hoping to find out what happened to the bank, but Jim no longer knows who he is. Pretending to be someone who lived in the town years before, George asks when the bank closed. Jim says about ten years before, and asks if he knew Marty Jenkins, who worked there. George cautiously says no, but that he'd heard of him. In reality, they went to school together and both applied for the bank job, only George got it, not Marty. Jim says that Marty skipped town with fifty thousand in bank funds, ruining a lot of the townspeople. Also, Jim says, the disgrace made Marty's brother Arthur turn to drink, which is hard on his wife, which is a shame because she's a nice person. Feeling sick, George recalls that both he and Arthur had courted Mary. He asks Jim for the name of Art's wife... it is Mary Thatcher, George's wife's maiden name. Staggering back out onto the street, George starts out for the home which he and Mary share with their kids, which in this reality is inhabited by Mary and Arthur. Realizing that he can't bring himself to face Mary yet, George decides to go to his parents' house. Their dog, not recognizing him, starts to bark furiously. His father comes to the door and invites him in, explaining that Brownie doesn't like strangers. Inside, remembering the satchel, he gives his mother one of the brushes, pretending to be a salesman as he casually asks for information about Mary; she and Art have two children, a boy and a girl. As George tries to process this, he looks around his parents' parlour and notices the picture over the mantle. It is one of his brother Harry, taken on his sixteenth birthday at Potter's studio. What catches George's attention is that only Harry is in the photo, when it was originally of the two of them together. He asks about Harry, but to his surprise, his query almost causes them to break down. His father says that Harry drowned on the same day that the photograph was taken. Reeling, George remembers that the two of them stopped to go swimming in the lake on their way home from Potter's studio, and that Harry had gotten a bad cramp but he-George- managed to get him to shore. Now, since he hadn't been there, Harry was dead. Leaving his grieving parents, George realizes that he desperately needs to see Mary. He goes to their house, where he notices that the yard is now untidy and neglected. Shaking and hardly able to talk, when Mary comes to the door George once again pretends to be a salesman and gives her a "complementary" brush. While he's there, Art comes staggering in drunk, causing his two children to warily back away. He slumps down on the couch, belligerently demanding to know who George is, and Mary tries to explain about him being a salesman. Art cuts her off, hiccuping and telling George to get out. Sickened, he does so, leaving the satchel behind and breaking into a run, heading for the river, desperate to find the little man who started all this. To George's relief, he sees him standing by the bridge. Gasping he tells the little man that he has to put things back the way they were. Raising his eyebrows, the man points out that he gave George precisely what he asked for, and that he has no responsibilities and can go wherever he wants and do whatever he wants. Broken, George pleads with him, saying that it's not just for him, but for others; the town is in a terrible mess and they need him there. The little man says that he understands that ... he just wanted to be sure that George did. He tells George to close his eyes and listen to the church bells which have started to ring. When he opens his eyes, George finds that the little man has disappeared, and that it has started to snow. He wonders if it was all a dream, or some sort of hallucination, but decides it doesn't matter. He now realizes what a gift his life is.
As George anxiously heads back into town, he pauses at Biddle's maple tree, and to his vast relief, finds the damage caused by his car. He then goes to the bank, where he finds it just as he left it at the end of the workday. Nearly colliding with Jim Silva- who greets him by name- George happily wishes him Merry Christmas before heading to his parents' house. There, he startles them by bursting in and embracing them all fondly- especially his confused brother, Harry. Leaving them bewildered but happy, he races to his own home, throwing open the door and excitedly calling for his wife and kids. Mary enters the room, trying to shush him, because she's just gotten the children to sleep. She barely gets a word out, though, before George sweeps her into his arms and kisses her passionately. He then drags her up to the children's room, insisting on waking them up and hugging them tightly. When Mary finally gets him back downstairs, she asks him what's gotten into him, and he starts to tell her about his strange dream but suddenly stops. He has just spotted the satchel with the brushes in it, lying on their couch.