Down East the Theme of Term Paper

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The door itself is a barrier, and she does not realize what is behind that door until she is inside and it is too late.

This kind of innocence is repeated in other Griffith films, and some of his biographers have speculated that the sort of character represented mirrors Griffith's view of his older sister, who raised the family after the mother's and father's deaths and who herself never married (Henderson 23-26). Whether this is the true source or not, the innocent female from the country was a staple in Griffith's films and a character tested again and again as various temptations are placed in her path. In Way Down East, the temptation may include the more affluent lifestyle of Lennox Sanderson and the Tremonts, and this desire to rise above her station may be the real sin for which Anna must atone. Sanderson's house has a high ceiling that makes the house seem huge, certainly much larger than the small home Anna shares with her mother. It is that desire that leads her to ruin, to the death of her child, and to the other ills that beset her before she is rescued by David.


Indeed, Anna's full redemption requires the intercession of a male hero who not only saves her from the ice floe but also brings her back into society by loving her, in effect forgiving her for her fall. This turns on its head the usual paradigm of the man saved from evil by the love of a good woman. David is a good man, and so his love for Anna carries special weight in bringing her back into the fold, described by Paula Marantz Cohen as a form of overly dramatic acting out of the idea of redemption: "The second half of the film is a countermovement to the scene of the baby's death: a conventional melodramatic plot takes over to make possible a happy ending -- -to bring the heroine back from the abyss of reality to the safe port of cinematic representation" (Cohen 124).

Such a visual serves as a strong metaphor for the road taken by Anna, a road that is fast-moving and treacherous, like the ice on the river; that moves inexorably toward complete ruin in the form of the falls; and that requires a certain goodness of spirit to overcome and the strong arms of a worthy male. The film reaffirms the domestic role for women and at the same time holds this image out as a salvation for men as well. In this way, Griffith suggests that the proper path is on firmer ground, to which the couple returns once David is able to help Anna across the ice and away from the falls.

The structure of the film shows the melodramatic roots of the story Griffith purchased, a dramatic form with which Griffith was most comfortable in any case. His plots tend to be heightened and emotional, filled with grand gestures and largely black-and-white characters. The hero and heroine may seem more gray because they are in some degree tempted by the darker forces around them, but in truth they remain pure and affirm this in the end. The origin of a character like Anna is indicated by Cohen when she writes that Griffith "concentrated on women as the vehicle for a narrative of character, following the lead of the female-centered Victorian novel" (Cohen 129). Anna is such a character and shows clear roots in the Victorian image of women and in a Victorian moral code.

The final need for Anna's redemption comes after some time has passed. She lives and works at the Bartlett farm until her past is exposed, suggesting that a sin once committed comes back again and again to exact punishment. Squire Bartlett is the arbiter of morality for the community, and it is he who drives Anna out of his house and onto the ice. For the Squire, the only way to cope with a sin is to cast it out. He does not seem to recognize the power of or even possibility of redemption, and the behavior of Anna since her "marriage" therefore means nothing.

Part of that behavior has been her burgeoning romance with David and her refusal to agree to marry him because she knows that her past will one day return to harm her. It indeed does when the Squire arrives in Belden to be told about Anna's baby by the busy-bodies at the hotel. It is this revelation that leads to his throwing Anna out of his house. That scene is interesting because it is both the low-point for Anna and the moment at which she reveals the truth, accusing Sanderson of the real sin as she walks out of the house.

The reappearance of the unrepentant Sanderson serves as a threat not only to Anna but to others in the household as he continues his career of seducing women, this time directing his attention toward the Squire's niece. The Squire's sanctimony has been well-established by this time, so his throwing Anna out is not a surprise. However, as she leaves she informs him of the truth about his houseguest, leading to a complete turnaround in his attitude. The real climax of the film comes after her rescue from the ice, when the Squire comes to her and asks her to forgive him. This act clearly shows the depth of her redemption, the degree to which the community recognizes that it has wronged her, and shows the Squire in effect redeeming himself through this act.

In some sense, even Sanderson might be seen as redeemed because he come to her at the end and confesses before all, asking if she wants to marry him so he can correct his own crimes. She refuses, but it does appear that the events have changed everyone in the film in some way and made all seem more unified around certain community values and around the initial idea that women are constant and men should be.

The film ends with a triple wedding, affirming much the same thing in a community setting, drawing together the people involved and offering a celebration of marriage and of the unity that marriage brings to the community. Marriage was a common conclusion in fiction throughout the nineteenth century and through the Victorian age, serving as the natural conclusion to the trials and tribulations suffered by characters up to that point. Way Down East is firmly tied to the traditional values and to the kind of social order that spawned those values. Any new ground broken by Griffith in this film is in visual terms, from the way he handles deeply emotional sequences such as the death of Anna's baby to the scenes of peril on the ice at the end. Anna becomes the long-suffering heroine after her early innocence is lost, always knowing more than others because she knows her history and they do not, reacting accordingly to protect David and to keep herself safe as well, and ultimately expressing her own sense of injustice when she reveals the truth about Sanderson and leaves the house. The film is melodramatic in the way it deals with heightened emotions and a somewhat contrived plot, with the coincidence that Sanderson picks a member of the family to seduce where Anna is now living. Still, the story is realistic for the most part and remains firmly tied to the social order of the time in which it is set.


Way Down East is a film that takes its time to develop a story showing the need for men and women to adhere to certain conventions and traditional moral values and what happens when they stray from these values, however inadvertently. Anna is not a sinful young woman by any means, but she falls among people who are sinful and who use her to their own advantage. The film plays into the prevalent stereotype of the wealthy as immoral, indolent, pleasure-seeking, and uncaring of others, while the poor are more likely to be virtuous, hard-working, and concerned about their fellow human beings. Virtue can be seduced by the luxuries of the rich, and Anna is seduced by these as she sees them in the world of her relatives and of Sanderson. This is why she fails to see his true nature and why she becomes his victim.

However, most would see her more as victim than as sinner, and even Squire Bartlett sees this once the circumstances are explained. She still has to be redeemed, first by suffering, then by confession, and then by acceptance on the part of others. The film is much concerned with the need for redemption and with the way redemption can be attained. For people like the old ladies at the hotel, redemption may be meaningless, and a sinner is always guilty. The Squire seems to believe this as well, but the truth…

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