Symbolism and irony in Mary Poppins
Summary: The bank run sequence in Disney's Mary Poppins does a delighful job of illustrating how storytellers can use symbolism and irony to powerfully underscore theme.
I was watching Disney’s 1964 classic, Mary Poppins, with my kids last night. I was struck by the delightful and surprisingly powerful use of irony and symbolism to underscore theme.
Tuppence, birds, and bank runs
Here’s the setup:
George Banks is a workaholic banker. He’s disconnected from the lives of his family, especially his children Jane and Michael. George hires Mary Poppins as a nanny to keep track of the kids.
But, Mary Poppins is no ordinary nanny. Instead of dealing with the “problem” of childcare, Mary Poppins embarks on a subtle campaign to fundamentally change how the family relates to one another. Ultimately, she brings George back into connection with his kids.
Things come to a head near the story’s climax around the matter of a tuppence — a coin worth two British pennies.
Mary Poppins has contrived to get George to take his kids to the bank with him for the day. In his mind, it’s about introducing the kids to the world of adults and responsibility.
(Incidentally, this further demonstrates how disconnected George is from his kids’ lives. He thinks this will help them see what an important man he is. What they really care about, though, is his spending time with them, not his social status.)
Mary Poppins knows this, of course. And, she has a plan.
At the kids’ bedtime, she sings a song about a bird lady who sells bread scraps to passersby for a tuppence.
When they’re on the way to the bank the next day, Jane and Michael see the bird lady. Predictably, Michael immediately wants to spend his tuppence on the simple pleasure of feeding the birds.
George is flabberghasted. Why spend money on such an inane waste? He decides instead to show Michael how to invest the tuppence and gain interest.
At the bank, things go terribly wrong. Michael, frustrated at not being able to do what he wants with his money, refuses to invest the tuppence. In a contrived but delightful escalation, this results in a run on the bank.
That evening, George’s colleagues at the bank blame him for the debacle. His career and status, into which he’s invested so much of his time (and self-worth), are in shambles.
He’s left sitting at home, stunned, staring at the tuppence coin that got him into this mess . . . And he’s finally starting to understand a much deeper truth. In playing the status games at work, he’s neglected the most important treasure he has: his family.
How the writers used irony and symbolism
The key symbol here is the tuppence coin.
Over the course of the sequence, writers Walsh and DaGradi masterfully invest the coin with thematic meaning. It becomes a physical representation of the divergence in worldviews about what’s important in life. Is it better to invest yourself in the world of adults and interest and status hierarchies? Or is it better to invest in relationships and simple pleasures and approach the world with childlike wonder?
By the time George is seated back at home, holding the coin, it represents the key dilemma of the story — which set of values will he choose going forward?
The moment is also heavily loaded with irony. His whole career — years of managing hundreds of thousands of pounds — has been lost in a silly fight over a single coin worth only two pennies.
Of course, the fight wasn’t over pennies. It was over values – his against his kids’. But the symbolism is powerful.
In the end, how much was that all worth? Barely a tuppence.
In our storytelling, key moments can benefit richly from the use of tools like symbolism and irony.
In Mary Poppins’ bank run sequence, the elements are used in the “dark night of the soul” to force George to face the story’s core dilemma and make a choice. As the pivotal moment in most stories, that’s an excellent place to “pull out all the stops” and really go for it with your use of story technique.
But other key moments, like the call to adventure, midpoint, climax, etc., can also benefit. You could even have a running symbol that’s introduced in one of the early key moments and comes back as a callback in the rededication or climactic moment.
The specifics of the symbol and the irony will be different depending on the story — and using these tactics may not fit every story. But, when you can use them, they can be tremendously effective. They can act like a magnifying glass, focusing and multiplying the impact of your character transformation and theme.
For a longer exploration of irony, see writer Craig Mazin’s excellent piece, “How to Write a Movie” on John August’s Scriptnotes podcast.
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