Tag Archives: Philip Van Doren Stern

The Greatest Gift By Philip Van Doren Stern

The Greatest Gift is a 1943 short story written by Philip Van Doren Stern which became the basis for the film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946). It tells the story of George Pratt, a man who is dissatisfied with his life and contemplates suicide. As he stands on a bridge on Christmas Eve 1943, he is approached by a strange, unpleasantly dressed but well-mannered man with a bag. The man strikes up a conversation, and George tells the man that he wishes he had never been born. The man tells him that his wish has been granted and that he was never born.” ~Courtesy Wikipedia

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

Note: This is an Excerpt. For the entire story visit: What So Proudly We Hail Library

The little town straggling up the hill was bright with colored Christmas lights. But George Pratt did not see them. He was leaning over the railing of the iron bridge, staring down moodily at the black water. The current eddied and swirled like liquid glass, and occasionally a bit of ice, detached from the shore, would go gliding downstream to be swallowed up in the shadows under the bridge.

“The water looked paralyzingly cold. George wondered how long a man could stay alive in it. The glassy blackness had a strange, hypnotic effect on him. He leaned still farther over the railing. . .‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you,’ a quiet voice beside him said.

George turned resentfully to a little man he had never seen before. He was stout, well past middle age, and his round cheeks were pink in the winter air as though they had just been shaved. ‘Wouldn’t do what?’ George asked sullenly.’What you were thinking of doing. ‘How do you know what I was thinking?’ ‘Oh, we make it our business to know a lot of things,’ the stranger said easily.

George wondered what the man’s business was. He wore a moth-eaten old fur cap and a shabby overcoat that was stretched tightly across his paunchy belly. Nothing else about him was noteworthy. He wore a moth-eaten old fur cap and a shabby overcoat that was stretched tightly across his paunchy belly. He was carrying a small black satchel. It wasn’t a doctor’s bag—it was too large for that and not the right shape. It was a salesman’s sample kit, George decided distastefully. The fellow was probably some sort of peddler, the kind who would go around poking his sharp little nose into other people’s affairs.

‘Looks like snow, doesn’t it?’ the stranger said, glancing up appraisingly at the overcast sky. ‘It’ll be nice to have a white Christmas. They’re getting scarce these days— but so are a lot of things.’ He turned to face George squarely. ‘You all right now?’

‘Of course I’m all right. What made you think I wasn’t? I—’George fell silent before the stranger’s quiet gaze.

The little man shook his head. ‘You know you shouldn’t think of such things—and on Christmas Eve of all times! You’ve got to consider Mary—and your mother too.’

George opened his mouth to ask how this stranger could know his wife’s name, but the fellow anticipated him. ‘Don’t ask me how I know such things. It’s my business to know ’em. That’s why I came along this way tonight. Lucky I did too.’ He glanced down at the dark water and shuddered.  ‘Well, if you know so much about me,’ George said, “give me just one good reason why I should be alive.’

The little man made a queer chuckling sound. ‘Come, come, it can’t be that bad. You’ve got your job at the bank. And Mary and the kids. You’re healthy, young, and—’

‘And sick of everything!” George cried. ‘I’m stuck here in this mud hole for life, doing the same dull work day after day. Other men are leading exciting lives, but I—well, I’m just a small-town bank clerk that even the army didn’t want.  I never did anything really useful or interesting, and it looks as if I never will. I might just as well be dead. I might better be dead. Sometimes I wish I were. In fact, I wish I’d never been born!’

The little man stood looking at him in the growing darkness. ‘What was that you said?’ he asked softly.”

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.

Level: Intermediate -Advanced

Language Skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening. Vocabulary activities are included.

Time: approximately 2 hours.

Materials:  Copy of story The Greatest Gift, biography of Philip Van Doren Stern, examples of Components for Literary Analysis, and access to the video clips below.

Objectives:  Students will  read and discuss the short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern. Students will achieve a better understanding of the story by learning literary devices and terms  (e.g., imagery, symbolism, setting,) used for analyzing stories.  They will also learn how to  analyze the relationship between characters, and events in the story by using these literary devices.

I. Pre-Reading Exercises

Stimulating background knowledge: Brainstorming

Directions: Ask students to think about what they already know about  the film It’s A Wonderful Life. Next, have students look at  any pictures in the text and generate ideas or words that may be connected to the story  As a class and list these ideas on the board. Students can use a brainstorming chart for assistance.

Brainstorming Map by rentonschools.us

 

Pre-reading Discussion Questions

Directions: Have students discuss the following questions prior to reading the story.

The Greatest Gift  is a story about a man who is very unhappy with his life and wishes that he was never born. His wish is granted and the story follows how he handles being unborn.

Think about the following questions.  Discuss your ideas with your  group members.

1. Describe a time when you were very unhappy with the way your life was going. First, how did you feel? Second, what did you do to help the situation?

2. In your opinion what makes life valuable?

3. In general, when people are frustrated and unhappy with their lives, what’s the best advice you would give them?

II. While Reading Tasks

Vocabulary:  Word Inference

Directions: Have students  infer the meanings of the words in bold font taken from the story. They can use this great Vocabulary Chart.

  1. The current eddied and swirled like liquid glass.
  2. George turned resentfully to a little man he had never seen before.
  3. “Wouldn’t do what?” George asked sullenly.
  4. He was a most unremarkable little person.
  5. Nothing else about him was noteworthy.
  6. The little man made a queer chuckling sound.
  7. You’d better take this with you,” he said, holding out his satchel.
  8. After that, of course, it’s a cinch.
  9. George felt a sudden burst of affection.
  10. His father waved toward the door. “Go on in,” he said cordially.
  11. His voice faltered.
  12. His mother smiled at his awkwardness.
  13. The choir was making last-minute preparations for Christmas vespers.

 

Prediction and Character Organizer Charts

Directions: Students may use these Prediction and Character  profile charts by Pace High School as  a while-reading tool to aid in their comprehension of the events and of the characters in the story.

Questions for Comprehension

Directions: After students have reviewed Components for Literary Analysis have them answer the following questions from the story. They can use their  analysis charts as guides.

  1. During what holiday does the story take place?
  2. What was the one thing George felt was outstanding about the stranger?
  3. Describe the stranger.
  4. What kind of profession did George think the stranger had?
  5. The stranger begins to tell George why his life “can’t be that bad.”  What are some of the things he tells George?
  6. Why is George “sick of everything”?
  7. The stranger tells  George why his life “can’t be that bad.”  What are some of the things he tells George?
  8. Why is George “sick of everything?”
  9. What wish does George make?
  10. Describe the stranger’s reaction to George’s wish.
  11. What is George’s reaction after the stranger grants him his wish?
  12. Why did the stranger give George the satchel?
  13. What was inside the satchel?
  14. What happened when George tried to return the satchel to the stranger?
  15. What quarrel did George have with Hank Biddle?
  16. When George inspected the damaged tree in Hank’s yard, what was his reaction?
  17. Why did the ‘nonexistent scar’ on the tree bother George?
  18. Describe what George saw when he  reached the bank where he worked.
  19. Who was Jim Silva?
  20. Why didn’t Jim Silva recognize George?
  21. Who was Marty Jenkins and what did he do involving the bank?
  22. Who was Art Jenkins?  What problem did Art have?
  23. Who did Art Jenkins marry?
  24. Why do you think this information disturbed George Platt?
  25. Why didn’t George go find Mary right away?
  26. How did George’s parents behave when he visited them?
  27. What did George find out about Mary from his parents?
  28. Who was Harry?
  29. Why did George’s mother get upset when Harry’s name was mentioned
  30. How did George remember the incident with Harry?
  31. What changes occurred because George Platt did not exist?
  32. Why did the stranger let George live again?
  33. When George reached Hank Biddle’s house, what did he do first?
  34. At the end of the story what did George find in his house that made his voice freeze

 

Questions for Literary Analysis

Themes are messages or ideas in a story. Usually themes are some beliefs about life or life experiences the author is trying to express to the reader. Examples: honesty, death and dying, love, importance of family)

What are some of the themes in the story?

Symbolism is the practice using an object, place, person or words to represent an abstract idea in a story. When an author wants to suggest a certain mood or emotion they use symbolism to hint at it, as oppossed to just saying it.Examples: flowers can represent romance, fog might represent a bad omen.

What are some of the symbols in the story?

Imagery is descriptive language authors use to create a picture in the reader’s mind. Imagery usually involves the senses: sight, taste, sound, touch andsmell. Examples: ‘the tangy taste of lemon’ ‘the loud ringing of the bells’, ‘the red and gold sunset’)

Identify some examples of how the author used imagery in the story.

 

Questions for Reflection

Directions:  Have  students discuss the following questions.

  1. The stranger says to George, “Oh, we make it our business to know a lot of things,” the stranger said easily.   Who is the “we”  the stranger is referring to? 
  2. George opened his mouth to ask how this stranger could know his wife’s name, but the fellow anticipated him. “Don’t ask me how I know such things. It’s my business to know ’em.” What  do you think his  business is?
  3. After George told the stranger his wish, why did the stranger react the way he did? (Why that’s wonderful!) In your opinion, should he have reacted differently?  Were you surprised by this response? Why or why not?
  4. When George tells the stranger, “they need me here.”  Who needs George and why do they need him? 
  5. Do you think George needs those  people?  Why?
  6. When George Pratt asks for his life back, the stranger tells George Pratt,  “You got everything you asked for. You’re the freest man on earth now.”  Give some examples of  how George is “free”.
  7. In your opinion, What is the Greatest Gift?
  8. At the end of the story, George thinks perhaps it was all a dream. What do you think happened to George?  Why?
  9. What have you  learned from this story?
  10. The stranger says to George, “Oh, we make it our business to know a lot of things,” the stranger said easily.   Who is the “we”  the stranger is referring to? 
  11. George opened his mouth to ask how this stranger could know his wife’s name, but the fellow anticipated him. “Don’t ask me how I know such things. It’s my business to know ’em.” What  do you think his  business is?
  12. After George told the stranger his wish, why did the stranger react the way he did? (Why that’s wonderful!) In your opinion, should he have reacted differently?  Were you surprised by this response? Why or why not?

Writing Assignment 

Directions: Have students choose a topic from below and write an essay to share with the class.

1.Choose one of the themes and write an essay describing your thoughts about the theme.

2. Write a description for each character that appears in the story.

3. In the The Greatest Gift , Philip Van Doren Stern had a happy ending.See if you can write a different a different ending for the story. Share your ending with the class.

IV. Listening Activity

Compare Opening scenes from film “It’s A Wonderful Life” to opening scenes from the short story The Greatest Gift.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a 1946 American Christmas fantasy drama film produced and directed by Frank Capra, based on the short story and booklet The Greatest Gift, which Philip Van Doren Stern published in 1943. Wikipedia

1st clip:

It’s A Wonderful Life | Suicide Attempt | Frank Capra

 

 

2nd clip:

It’s a Wonderful Life Movie CLIP

 

Beginning of Short Story The Christmas Gift By Philip Van Doren Stern

The little town straggling up the hill was bright with colored Christmas lights. But George Pratt did not see them. He was leaning over the railing of the iron bridge, staring down moodily at the black water. The current eddied and swirled like liquid glass, and occasionally a bit of ice, detached from the shore, would go gliding downstream to be swallowed up in the shadows under the bridge.

The water looked paralyzingly cold. George wondered how long a man could stay alive in it. The glassy blackness had a strange, hypnotic effect on him. He leaned still farther over the railing. . .“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a quiet voice beside him said.

George turned resentfully to a little man he had never seen before. He was stout, well past middle age, and his round cheeks were pink in the winter air as though they had just been shaved.

“Wouldn’t do what?” George asked sullenly.
“What you were thinking of doing.”
“How do you know what I was thinking?”
“Oh, we make it our business to know a lot of things,” the stranger said easily.

3rd clip:  It’s a Wonderful Life  Movie CLIP – Careful What You Wish For (1946)

 

Excerpt From Short Story The Greatest Gift

“Well, if you know so much about me,” George said, “give me just one good reason why I should be alive.”

The little man made a queer chuckling sound. “Come, come, it can’t be that bad. You’ve got your job at the bank. And Mary and the kids. You’re healthy, young, and—”

I never did anything really useful or interesting, and it looks as if I never will. I might just as well be dead. I might better be dead. Sometimes I wish I were. In fact, I wish I’d never been born!”

The little man stood looking at him in the growing darkness. “What was that you said?” he asked softly.

“I said I wish I’d never been born,” George repeated firmly. “And I mean it too.”

The stranger’s pink cheeks glowed with excitement. “Why that’s wonderful! You’ve solved everything. I was afraid you were going to give me some trouble. But now you’ve got the solution yourself. You wish you’d never been born. All right! OK! You haven’t!” “What do you mean?” George growled.

“You haven’t been born. Just that. You haven’t been born. No one here knows you. You have no responsibilities—no job—no wife—no children. Why, you haven’t even a mother. You couldn’t have, of course. All your troubles are over. Your wish, I am happy to say, has been granted—officially.”

 

Questions

Directions: Review the clips from the film “It’s A Wonderful Life”. Read the excerpts from the short story The Greatest Gift. Answer the following questions:

1. In the beginning of It’s A Wonderful Life what are the differences between the opening scenes in the film (directed by Frank Capra) and the opening scenes in the short story written by Philip Van Doren Stern?

2. Which version do you prefer? Explain Why?

ANSWER KEY