João N.S. Almeida
A comedy rooted in Irish folclore, Harvey is based on a play by the same name written by the relatively unknown playwright Mary Chase in 1944, in the midst of World War II. This somewhat provides the setting for her writing, although the plot does not directly reference the war. It portrays a middle-aged bachelor who is having what appears to be an hallucination about a giant rabbit named Harvey, who is accompanying him everywhere and is his close friend. The creature never makes a direct appearance, and is invisible to both the characters and the viewers. Although Harvey troubles his close relatives, it is far from being troubling for him, as it induces an opiate-like state where feelings of kindness and warmheartedness are nurtured. This premise could place the movie in the terrain of the farcical that can be found in some screwball or fantasy comedies of early Hollywood cinema. But there is something in the quasi-oneiric ambiguity of the plot that turns this apparently light-hearted comedy into a perhaps unintentional commentary on metafiction, with multiple layers, which I intend to analyze in this review. This is more evident in the movie, where James Stewart’s usual warm-hearted movie persona is used with effectiveness, than in the play, where the comedic elements are more recursive.
While Stewart’s character is initially portrayed as being mentally diminished, his condition is not established as perilous, as the delusion seems to be closely associated with his personal ethos of caring and goodwill. Stewart is extremely passionate about his stance on his invisible friend, and his kindhearted movie persona is here stretched to the verge of the delirious. Unlike It’s a Wonderful Life, where his character fades into clumsiness and is in a way less menacing, in Harvey it seems to inhabit a trance-like state above the empirical world which arouses both sympathy and distrust from the viewer. The slow phrasing and tenderness, typically Stewart, give a feeling of mystery to his words, as if he is living in a different world from others, something like a good natured mania, a world of dream and fulfillment and of substantial summum bonum — somewhat like an afterlife, far from earthly squabbles, suggesting that Harvey might be a creature of the spirit world. His typical warmheartedness draws viewers to an acceptance of the hallucination, which progresses from tolerance and recognition of its association with the good, to being presented with strong empirical evidence and acknowledging it.
But this is not a compromise with a definition. Although the unraveling of the plot slowly suggests that his hallucination might be real, reaching a point where empirical signs are given indicating the existence of Harvey, the viewer is not sure whether he is being pulled toward a collective hallucination and being shown its representation, or if there is literality in presenting the hallucination as real. This is, in fact, the strongest point of the movie, as it builds up a setting where both the characters and the viewers are drawn into the hallucination. While the viewer is left with ambiguity, the characters, who are not multi-dimensional as in psychological novels, have their unidimensionality strangely broken when some of them, as the doctor or the sister, succumb to the hallucination, entering the same state of bliss. This transition from reality to supernatural resemble some moments in Buñuel’s movies, as in Susana, Demonio y Carne (1951), where the characters suddenly change from an almost murderous disposition towards each other to a state of inebriated peacefulness, after the devilish woman is excluded from their house. At that point in Harvey, the narrative structure does not collapse, as it might be expected to, but feeds on the character’s beliefs, mirroring the viewer’s belief or suspension of disbelief in the story. From then on, the movie establishes a firm grip on identifying fiction with reality, playing it out at an almost conscious level, although never quite reaching it.
Harvey is then established as an ambiguous presence and as a fiction within a fiction. This narrative device implies, although not necessarily, a breaking of the fourth wall, since the suspension of disbelief depends on a tight frontier between the world of the fictional narrative and the real time world of the viewer. But in Harvey this does not destroy the suspension of disbelief, intensifying it instead, contaminating the real time world with the fictional mode. Some early examples of this kind of device in literature, excluding mythological accounts, are found in La Vida es Sueño and The Tempest. The divisions between dream and reality, the fictional and the empirical world, become intermingled, as the main character’s strange state of otherworldliness suggests. But it is his sister that acts as a strong point of confluence of those two dimensions, as she seems to have the most ambiguous relation with reality, assuming it both as a fixed exterior empirical field and as a substance intermingled with dreams. As she succumbs to the hallucination in the final scene, she phrases the situation in proper terms, and describes her preference for a sort of a Wildean stance on reality, with an emphasis on illusion and composition, which also mirrors the fictional mode of the movie.
It is clear that Mary Chase wanted the viewers to believe in Harvey. For her, the character is not an illusion, but springs from belief. Stewart also remarks that the whole movie cast was always focused on believing in Harvey, treating it as a real presence, and conveying that to the audience. Although in the original play the character was supposed to make an appearance, the effect was not convincing, as materializing it would actually destroy it. Harvey exists only as absence and illusion, and bringing him to life would destroy those qualities. But when empirical evidence for the existence of Harvey is shown, the viewer, having been placed initially in the skeptic’s shoes, is more prone to believe he is being dragged into an illusion than to actually ascribe a real existence to the character. So the border between participating in a suspension of disbelief with the non-believers and participating in a different suspension of disbelief and inhabiting the hallucination with the other characters that recognize Harvey is played with. This could put the viewer in a position where he has to decide for himself as to the substantiality of Harvey, but the signs given by the end leave little doubt that Harvey is being shown as an existent presence, leaving the viewer questioning whether he entered a different stage of the narrative and travelled further down the rabbit hole (pun intended) or if the fictional world created remains the same from the beginning. This fiction within a fiction mirrors an ontic question, since the intermingling of the borders between existence and non-existence, played in both the fictional world of the characters and the real time world where the viewer is involved in a suspension of disbelief, seems to suggest that existence through perception depends also on imagination, and the non-existent is also conveyed through a form.
Having presented this structure, it is now appropriate to reveal what Mary Chase recalls as her main source of inspiration for the writing of the play: seeing a neighbor who had her husband and son absentee in the war. This is the image from where Harvey arose: a lone person surrounded by absentee close ones. From this, Chase uses fantastical Irish folclore to present an ironical comedy where the horror and unreality of war highlight similar qualities that can be found in desire, as both the otherworldly bliss experienced by Stewart and the descriptions he offers of Harvey’s personality indicate that the creature is closely associated with desire and fulfillment. In one of the plot’s defining moments, Stewart describes his first meeting with the creature, where before answering its name it asks Stewart what name he prefers, stating after the answer what a coincidence it is that it is exactly its name. The answer confirms, in a way, that Harvey is an hallucination, and in another way it becomes impossible to establish a proof to the contrary, since a coincidence does not assume a cause and effect relationship, but does not exclude it either. But this is not a practical joke: Harvey belongs to a world where desire and object are the same. As such a world can only be represented as a suggestion of presence, dependent on belief, imagination and composition, and never as a direct and literal representation, Harvey can only be portrayed in ambiguity; and while the viewer and some of the characters have access to empirical signs indicating its presence, it cannot in fact exist in the same fictional mode as the other characters. This turns Harvey into a device that trespasses the fourth wall without breaking it, and creates a metafictional connection between the belief of the characters and the belief of the real time world of the viewers, allowing Harvey to be a representation of fictionality itself.