Read a full summary of The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern right here! This page is full of spoilers, so beware. If you are wondering what happened in The Greatest Gift, then you are in the right place!
Special thanks to Sarina Byron, a BSR contributor who wrote this great recap! Sarina is a British Author and Contributing Writer living in California. Sarina enjoys bringing forth a different perspective and encouraging a different way of thinking through her writing. Visit her blog to read her reviews, and check the end of the review for a link to her Instagram.
Philip Van Doren Stern
***** Everything below is a SPOILER *****
What happened in The Greatest Gift?
George Bailey stood on the bridge one freezing evening watching the river below and wondering if it was cold enough to take a man’s life. As he pondered this morose thought, a man approached him and started making small talk. George kept responding to his questions with short answers until the man startled him by responding to his thoughts instead of his words. He told George he shouldn’t think of such things on Christmas Eve and he should think about his wife Mary and his two children. When George tried to ask him how he knew of his wife, the man told him not to bother with that. It was his job to know. The responsibilities of his job also required him to know of George’s whereabouts, and it was lucky he came along looking for him tonight.
George commented if he knew so much ,then perhaps he could tell him why he was alive. The man tried to reason with George that his life can’t possibly be all bad, what with his job at the bank, his wife Mary, his children, his health. Before he could go on, George cut in to say he was sick of everything. He goes on to complain he only saw himself as a small-town bank clerk who was not allowed to serve in the War [World War II]. He did not believe he had ever done anything interesting during his life, and he didn’t think he ever would. This feeling sent him into a spiral of despair, and he wished he had never been born.
The man had the strangest reaction to this last sentence. He asked George to repeat it again. Proclaiming it a great idea, the man granted George his wish: His desire was now the truth. George Bailey did not exist, and no one knew him. George thought he was a madman and began to walk away.
The man gave him a bag filled with brushes and told him he had best keep it with him when he goes visiting everyone as no one would recognize him. He even equipped George with a small sales pitch and the best manner in which to deliver it. He told George it would be best if he gave them a free brush and asked him to practice his sales pitch. George was annoyed, so he was not about to engage in this ridiculous pursuit. He got busy snapping the bag shut, and when he looked up, the man had disappeared.
As George he walked back toward town, he noticed how festive everything looked in the beautiful twinkling light. The first sign of something strange occurred as he went past Hank Biddle’s house. Hank’s maple tree usually had some damaged bark from when George’s car had bumped into it but now it was smooth and whole. This was when he first thought of whether the man on the bridge had been right after all. He dismissed the thought and walked on.
George headed toward the bank that he had locked up before finishing up for the evening and was shocked to see the lights were off and the building looked abandoned. He saw a sign outside the building indicating it was for sale. The sign carried the name of Jim Silva, who George Bailey was familiar with, or was in his alternate life. Jim Silva did not recognize George and asked him if he knew a man called Marty Jenkins. George knew Marty, of course, and he also remembered when he and Marty had both applied for the job at the bank after leaving school. He had been the one to gain employment instead of Marty.
George learnt in this alternative reality, Marty had been hired by the bank from which he stole fifty thousand dollars during the recession, thus ruining a number of people in the town. Jim Silva told George people hated Marty Jenkins in this town, and he would be glad his hands on him, too. George then asked Jim about Marty’s brother Arthur who was popularly known as Art. Jim told him Art was doing okay but had taken to the bottle. He told George Art had married, Mary which was another consequence of George’s absence as George and Marty had both courted Mary.
George ran out of Jim’s office and headed to Mary’s house, which he knew they would have inherited from Mary’s parents. He changed his mind, however, and decided to visit his parents first. As he walked through the gate, his dog Brownie came charging towards him and drove him out. His father came to check on the commotion, and George realized he did not recognize him. He played the part of the salesman and asked to see the lady of the house. His father restrained Brownie and waved him through.
George met his mother, who told him she did not need any brushes. He offered her a free brush, and his awkwardness reflected in his speech and manner. She thanked him for the free brush and asked him to sit down for a while. George pretended to be a past resident of the town and asked after Mary. His mother told him they knew Mary very well and she had two children now. George sighed upon learning about that, and his mother took it to mean he was tired and offered him some tea.
George refused the tea but looked around the parlor to understand why it felt so different. He realized it was because the picture above the mantlepiece only had his brother in it. He asked them if it was their son and mentioned he might have met him. All of this had a distressing effect on his mother, who started to cry. His father then explained George could not have met him as he died the day the photograph was taken. George recollected on the day, after they had their pictures taken at Potter’s studio, they had gone swimming and George had saved Harry from drowning. This consequence of his absence made him even sadder, and he made a hasty departure to the sound of Brownie’s low growling.
George headed to Mary’s house now by way of the church, which had annoyed him immensely in his alternate reality. But right now, the sound of the practicing choir tore his heart out. When he arrived at what was essentially his house, he saw the garden was unkept and wild. He could hardly restrain himself when he saw her, but she looked at him with no sign of recognition like everyone else.
In response to his cheerful greeting, she simply asked him to come in. He looked around the room and noticed an expensive sofa that Mary had pushed for them to buy was sitting in her alternate reality living room as well. He presented her with the prettiest brush of the collection, which she thanked him for.
Just as Mary tried the brush on the velvet sofa, the children came in screaming. The trouble seemed to be the little boy was bullying the little girl with a toy gun. He seemed an awful lot in appearance and temperament like his father. Just as the little boy was getting started on George as well, Art Jenkins walked in. Art saw George, a strange man in his living room, and got annoyed. He declared in irritation that they did not need any brushes or brush salesmen. The little boy repeated his father’s words and George beat a hasty retreat.
George had just about had enough. He went looking for the man on the bridge, and what do you know, that’s exactly where he found him! He told the man he’d had enough of not existing, and he had come to understand the value of his life. George understood life in itself was the greatest gift, and he wanted his life back. At first, he pretended to deny George’s request, stating this was George’s choice and he must deal with the consequences. George protested this, and the man told him to keep listening to the church bells, which had begun to toll. When they stopped, he began to feel extremely cold, which was the first sign that he was alive again. He noticed the man had disappeared, but he could not look for him as the heavy snowstorm greatly impacted visibility of his surroundings.
George raced towards the town screaming “Merry Christmas.” He stopped at Hank Biddle’s maple tree to check on the tree scar, which was back, and he resolved to bring a tree surgeon around to it. He then ran towards the bank to make sure it was still in business, and the vault light, which he had turned on on his way out, was still lit. He dragged a most surprised Jim Silva out with him. As soon as he saw it was on, he wished Jim a mumbled “Merry Christmas” and rushed towards his parents’ house.
George’s joy was overflowing on seeing everything back to normal. He played with Brownie, checked on the photograph of himself and his brother, kissed his mother, gave his brother an overzealous handshake, and joked enthusiastically with his father. He burst into his house, screaming his wife’s name. Mary hastened to check on him and hush him as the children were in bed. She was dressed for Church, but George was so overjoyed to see her that he held her closer than he’d held her for ages. As they were kissing on the sofa, he felt something poke his back. He knew what it was even before he looked at it. It was the beautiful, blue-handled brush he had given Mary in his alternate reality.
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