A Man Called Ove

The maxim that it is more blessed to give than to receive is well known and I would apply it without a second thought to director Hannes Holm’s 2015 movie A Man Called Ove. I think the movie fits the maxim and vice versa. On the other hand, I think the maxim doesn’t really capture the two points I would like to explore in this essay and I would like to extend the implications just a bit.

The first point ove-1is that it calls for a comparison of “amounts” or “degrees” of being blessed. It is the word “more” in the maxim that has us comparing one amount of blessedness with another and saying that one amount is larger. That is what “more” means and what it needs to mean. [It says right here than you aren’t allowed to do that.]

But what strikes me in this movie isn’t anything like an amount at all. It is more like a flavor or an overtone or a tint. It is another kind or another source or another delivery system for the “blessedness.” I find that really thought-provoking.

And that leads me to the second point, which has to do with what I called a “delivery system.” But what, really, is the means by which these blessings are conferred? There is no scene where single shaft of light from heaven illuminates the old man’s features. He doesn’t pronounce a blessing on the children and then they pronounce it on him. How does this work exactly?

Ove (Rolf Lassgård) is a grumpy old widower and retiree. [1] His life is stable, but bleak. Then some neighbors move in—people who are very hard to ignore—and Ove is forced to do an amazing variety of things he has not done for a long time. Some, he has probably never done. Let’s look at an example or two.

ove-5The wife, Parveneh, (Bahar Pars) of Ove’s new neighbor is Persian. That’s a short way of saying that she doesn’t know how to be Swedish. It turns out that she has no intention of becoming culturally Swedish, but that’s another story. [2] Parveneh has to make a quick trip to the hospital and leaves Ove in the waiting room with her two children. [This one picture nails the two characters exactly.]

She gives Ove a book that could, in a pinch, be used to entertain the children. The children prevail on him to read to them. They have no idea how far outside Ove’s comfort zone that is. He has never been a father. He doesn’t know all the “reading to the kids” tricks that fathers pick up so quickly. So Ove starts reading to them about a bear. The children don’t like the way he is reading. They think the lines the bear says should sound like a bear.

I don’t think “outside his comfort zone” really captures this request. Ove has very likely never done this or anything like this before. If he ran across a man reading in growly sounds to little children in a public place, I am sure he would have disapproved of it. But he tries. And he does really well. And the kids really like it and, at that moment, they really like him.

How does it work?

So let’s stop, after just this one example, and look at what he gave the children and what the experience of succeeding in pleasing the children with his creative artistry “gave” to him. [3] Ove gave the children a distraction while their mother was busy in the hospital. The children gave Ove the first evidence he had ever had that he might be one of those adults who knows how to please children. The children gave him reason to believe that his growly conversation was delightfully bear-like (ursine, we say in the trade) and he knows he invented those sounds himself.

And, getting away from the “giving” metaphor, we can say directly that Ove is given the opportunity to be a kind of person he never had been before (probably) and that he certainly had not been since his wife’s death.  He takes that opportunity and is forced, as a result, to re-evaluate the kind of person he is.

In another scene—another crisis, of course—he is called into the neighbor’s house. The children need to be looked after. He also winds up in the middle of an argument about what to do with a dishwasher that doesn’t work and is therefore, no more than a piece of junk. And Bette remembers (she’s usually right about things like this) that the kitchen where the junky dishwasher sat was full of dirty dishes.

Ove survives bedtime for the children. We don’t see that. Then he fixes the dishwasher. We don’t see that either. And when the parents return, they discover that the counters are all clear because the dirty dishes are either in the dishwasher or because they have been washed and put away in the cupboards.

That’s a very nice favor for Ove to have done and it is a real help to the parents. But a prominent part of the beginning of the story is the parade of neighbors who ask Ove to “look at” (fix) things and he always says No. He says No to the request and also a broader and more hurtful No to the person. Ove is a cranky old man and none of these neighbors means anything to him. But then he is “forced” into the neighbor’s house. There must have been a time for the kids to be in bed. He did that. And he stands in the kitchen looking at a dishwasher he knows he could fix. And he does that. And then he looks (Bette’s version) at the counter full of dirty dishes and then at the empty dishwasher and he shrugs, I suppose, and starts loading the dishes into the dishwasher.

He came to help with the kids because the parents had an urgent need for him. But then what? They didn’t have an urgent need for him to fix the dishwasher. It must have just seemed fitting to Ove. A guy who would come over at night and figure out a way to get the two little girls to bed just must be the kind of guy who would fix a cranky piece of machinery if he could. And the guy who voluntarily fixed the dishwasher is probably the kind of guy who go on and wash the dishes.

I’m making is sound like logic. I know it isn’t logic, but I chose that phrasing deliberatelyove-4 because I think that there is an affinity of some kind between one act of kindness and another. [4] Something like the current of a stream is set up and Ove “drifts downstream” following the implications of the kindnesses he has done, just as he had been following the logic of his refusal to help any of his neighbors.  Actually, “who he is to the neighbors” is very much like “who he was to his wife,” who was a marvelous person and the first person ever to really believe in him.

So when we think about “the blessedness of receiving,” I think we need to be alert to currents like these. Ove benefitted much more than anyone else did from his kindnesses to his new neighbors. And it isn’t just that they appreciated his efforts. It is not just that. It is also that Ove was forced to think some very positive things about himself. He was forced to admit that he had done some generous things and possibly even to speculate about whether he was a generous person. Thinking those things was perfectly reasonable, giving the things he had actually done.

That isn’t why he did them. But that is, in fact, how he was blessed.

[1] Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) says in the opening lines of The Intern, that Freud thought life was focused on work and love. Well, Ben says, my wife died and I am now retired. What is there to focus on.
[2] In this little town, “doing it the Swedish way” and “doing it the right way” are completely synonymous. Just having someone like Parveneh around makes that clear.
[3] Right away, when you start putting words like “gave” in quotes, you know you are into new territory. The point here is that Ove did this thing and experienced himself in a new way (daring, creative storyteller) and found himself rewarded for it. All those are internal experiences. So “gave to Ove” really doesn’t capture either the source of the reward or the nature of it. “Caused to grow in Ove” would point to the experience better, but we don’t say that.
[4] Or one act of cruelty to another. The tie is so tight that it is a commonplace among sports commentators that a player who makes a superb defensive play at one end of the basketball floor is quite likely to return to the other end and make a superb offensive play. In some odd way, making the basket is “implied” in the prior blocking of the shot. In sports, sometimes, we call it “momentum.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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