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THE GREATEST SHOWMAN -  Psychological Analyses of the movie

Atualizado: 13 de mai. de 2020

“Each one of us are especial, and no one is equal to the other”

P.T. Barnum

The Greatest Showman tells the trajectory of P. T. Barnum, the man who created the concept of “show business ", coining the term "the greatest show on Earth, "which accompanies the circuses since then.

The movie shows Barnum in childhood, dealing with the difficulties of poverty, while dreaming with a successful life, as if the imagination compensated the harsh reality imposed by the misery. Son of a tailor man, who worked for the rich families of that time, he falls in love, even in childhood, with the daughter of his father’s customer, Charity. Charity’s father humiliated him and advised him to keep away from his daughter.

Poverty provided clothes and shoes tattered, in addition to hunger. Barnum, still as a boy, was showed trying to steal food, but without success, since he was always caught, and the fruit of his failed theft, retrieved from your hands. Desolate, he is surprised by a gesture of charity and compassion, coming exactly from "outsider ", a deformed woman offers him an apple, which he accepts with admiration. She would be the only person to demonstrate compassion for him, as his own father was submissive to the rules of the bourgeoisie, in order to preserve his work, only way to support his family. The submission of his father is so that he is not able to protect his own son, when he gets a slap in the face from Charity’s father. The punishment is accepted, such as the only option, without being questioned. Passivity and conformity are desired and expected from the lower social classes, and could be introjected in their minds, as a way to survive, since nonconformity and disobedience could be severely punished.

These two simple information are crucial to understand Barnum’s trajectory. Barnum’s father is a tailor man, although belonging to a profession devalued by Charity’s father, exerts a profession which talent and creativity are crucial for success and appreciation, but it is also a "creator" of persona to the bourgeoisie. To be well dressed is a way to demonstrate that someone has a good value and personal power. The tailor man provides it for the customers, while his own son has only old clothes to wear and is starving. The woman with deformity who gives him the apple remains in his imagination, or maybe even in his memory, that the excluded by society, as the poor, the ill, the exotic, or just different people also have their value, enable him to be empathic and compassionated.

Looking to the apple as a symbol of temptation, as in the case of Adam and Eve, who were expelled from Paradise for falling at the temptation to eat the forbidden fruit, a new awareness becomes possible. It was if Barnum could understand from that moment, even though unconsciously, that the values of that society could not be correct and fair, since love and compassion are coming from the excluded ones, while worn, disrespect and humiliation are coming from those who supposedly superior.

A new state of consciousness was born in this small gesture of offer an apple to a starving boy, also excluded from the society.

Barnum works hard for years. He becomes an adult and return to his hometown with at least the minimum conditions to marry Charity. She leaves her father’s house to start a new life with Barnum. They were in love since childhood, exchanging letters throughout the time when she was studying at a boarding school, while Barnum was working to make a living.

Charity represents his Anima, the idealized image of a woman, of the feminine, beautiful, wealthy, well dressed and well educated, all the values he desires for himself.

Charity, despite to be her name, also means mercy, grace, kindness, tolerance, the voluntary giving of help, including financial help, besides kindness and tolerance in judging others.

All the values, which are missing at Barnum’s life.

Despite the financial adversities, they are happy. They have two daughters, and the family provided support to each other.

He tries to get rich and succeed. Perhaps he believes that is for Charity and the children, but it is also for himself. The wound of humiliation he suffered in childhood, by the poverty and social discrimination are very close to him yet. The slap on his face, gave by Charity’s father, was not forgotten. He made her laughing and messing her beautiful dress with tea, in the scene in which they met for the first time.

Charity do not mind about her and his social condition. She loves him and abandon her comfortable life to stay with him, but he carries the feeling of being humiliated and want to rematch.

When he lost his job, he takes with him the documents of fleet ships who had sunk, and uses these documents as guarantee to get a loan and start your own business. He acts as a trickster, a rogue, using a document without any legal value to reach his goal. The trickster aspect of his personality was present from childhood, as he was playful, making jokes and playing with the rules, also fantasizing a life of success, in which he would be a great artist.

The trickster aspect is also present in his attempts to steal food, when he was starving. The archetype of trickster accompanies him throughout his life, acting as a trickster himself. He also has as one of his faithful employees a thief, which he met while he was trying to steal him, who remains working with him all the time. Some scenes show this thief trying to steal people, under the aware supervision of Barnum, which prevents the act with a simple gesture.

The trickster archetype is present in his personality both in violating the law and the social norms, but on creative transgression, which leads to laugh, fun and entertainment.

Trickster is also the archetype of the clown, the debauchery, communication, the comedian, the laughing of ourselves, the relativity of seriousness.

The trickster is malleable, adaptable, fluid as Mercury, his element, taking the necessary shape in accordance with the situations that come with this; bringing a great capacity of resilience.

The dark aspect of the trickster archetype is the disregard of laws, the famous Brazilian “jeitinho" to manipulate the law and the social rules, interpreting them according to his own preferences or necessity.

Barnum had the idea to open a Museum of curiosities, horrors and oddities, which does not gets success of public, until his daughters say your Museum needs something "alive ", since it just shows dead animals, sculptures and things of that kind. He is an open mind and accept the suggestions of the anima archetype, now also represented by his two daughters, in addition to Charity, his wife.

It might be said that he was a good father to his daughters, which are creative, cheerful and have a great capacity of imagination. It is clear when he asks them what they want to receive as a gift. One wishes to marry Santa Claus, a fantasy to marry someone who could give her any gifts, but also a symbol of kindness and reward by good children behavior. The other daughter asks for ballet shoes, an accessory required to develop her desire to become a ballerina, her creative side, but more pragmatic than her sister.

Following his daughters’ advice, Barnum begins to invite to your show all kind of “exotic people" that he could find. We have to keep in mind that the story goes on in the years 1800, where the issue of inclusion was not yet even contemplated.

Dwarfs, overweight people, very tall man, albino, Siamese twins, anyone who looks different to what that society determined as “normal” or acceptable. Who was different was considered an aberration, being excluded by the society, in addition to the poor, miserable, black, foreign and Indians, which had no value, or any role in that society or culture.

Those were the people who could not, or better, who should not be exposed under any circumstances, and those were the people Barnum invites to be the stars of the spectacle. The people, who probably lived hidden during their entire lives, now become the center of attention, under the spotlight of stardom.

"You put people of all kinds on stage with you, as if they were equal."

Paul Sparks, as James Gordon Bennett, founder and publisher of The New York Herald

The first person he invites to the show is a dwarf, hidden by his own mother, who denies his existence when Barnum asks for him at his own home. Barnum’s argument to convince him is -" People laughed of you throughout your life, but now they will pay to see you and to laugh of you". In this way, he continues and hires the bearded woman, who sings divinely, and become fascinated by her voice. Little by little, he will found talent in each one of the "outsiders ", an especial talent that would make a great attraction for the show.

We can only recognize in the other what I have in myself, just someone creative and talented is able to recognize this and enhance the others talent, and it was what he did.

While he searches for success, fame, recognition and money, he turned the life of these people, before solitary and devalued. Now they are in evidence, having a chance to be proud of themselves and raise their self-steam. However, he “suffers" a success, an expression Jung used in many situations.

Jung said that nothing was more dangerous in the life of a person than get a great success or recognition, the person would risk to identify with this ephemeral moment and become inflated, feeling better than the others and believing to be more capable of what really is. Barnum want to be respected by the upper class, so he tries to join Phillip Carlyle. Carlyle comes to experience the same situation Charity and Barnum had, falling in love with Anne Wheeler, the trapeze’s artist of the circus, a poor and black woman, causing scandal in his family, making him losing their Heritage.

Barnum reaches the success, get a lot of money and purchase the mansion neighboring to his father in law, the feeling of inferiority that he felt throughout his life makes pick it up the acceptance of those who before humiliated him, he starts to be identified with them.

“You don’t need that everybody loves you. Only a few good people.”


Identification with those someone hates or despises is the great trap of one's shadow. The characteristics I do not recognize in myself, I project on the others, but soon or latter, we need to confront our own shadow. In Barnum’s case, the hate he felt by the bourgeoisie shrouded a jealous that he did not even know he felt, but Charity was aware of it, and pointed it to him, when she observes that he had bought the house in the same street of her father lives.

The identification with his own shadow is even clearer when he prevents the artists of his show to attend the presentation of the singer Jenny Lind, from a place where they could be seen in the theater. In addition, he tries to stop them from entering the reception offered to her, after the show.

He was ashamed by the presence of those who himself fought to have the right to be the artists of his show. It is interesting for our analysis to observe what happens with Barnum, while watching Lind’s presentation, he was amazed by her luxurious and impeccable presentation. While she was acclaimed by the public, he says – “that is real”, and he wishes something ”real”.

At this moment, he is identified with the persona of wealthy and well succeeded business man, as he believes that the real world, the real life, depended of social approval and social acceptance, which means, a bourgeois persona.

Barnum seems to realize the aspect trickster of his career as showman, and the artists of his show, were not real, were fake. He was recognized and treated in the same way by the newspapers and the entire society.

He had achieved success and money exposing the excluded from the society, presenting in his shows the more complete weird people that he could find, but so far, he himself was not capable to recognize the value and the beauty of what he was doing.

He was, unconsciously, exposing not the shadow of the excluded ones, but the shadow of those who caused the exclusion, those who do not accept the different.

He exposed more than the bourgeois’ shadow, where people values depend on what people have, so constant protests happens at the door of the theater, every night. The artists were harassed when left the theatre, while walking on the street; they could not be exposed out of the show. The newspaper criticized his show, saying it was not art, as he could not recognize the talented artists excluded by the dominant culture. Only one kind of art were allowed, the art expression of the dominant class.

In parallel to that, he falls in love with Jenny Lind, the singer. Or rather, he is fascinated by her. Or maybe by the effect she caused in people, a beautiful woman, talented, admired, which everyone wants to be close by. Jenny Lind receives his anima projection, as she is a woman who carries also the idealized persona of a well succeed artist, what he has not, and again, he tries to escape from his own identity, associating himself with her.

At this moment, his anima projection is contaminated by his shadow, because Jenny Lind herself declares to be a child of an extra marriage union, and suffers with gossip and rejection by the upper class. However, her extraordinary talent and beauty blotted this bias, as she fulfill the upper class’ persona requirements. Even so, she suffers discrimination and prejudice.

What happens to Lind is something that often happens with artists and famous and admired people, it is as if we need to vilify them, whether by their humble origin, which in the head of someone limited by prejudice thoughts, they do not have the right to be considered special.

Envy of talent and creativity. Talent and creativity are qualities very well evaluated, but considered a privilege of a few.

Gossip would also be a way to make them more human, since the glorification of art and artist usually creates an identification with the numinous. The numinous experiences are, at the same time desired, envied and feared.

When an incendiary destroys the theater, Barnum risks his life to save Carlyle, which in turn, is risking his life itself to save Anne Wheeler. Barnum is saving not only Carlyle, but also the symbol of love that do not let down by social barriers, represented by the love Carlyle feel by Anne Wheeler, as much as what Charity feel for him, a love able to waive the social position and fortune, a love free of persona.

After the destruction of the theater, Barnum has the idea to present the circus in the way it become popular, under a round tend.

Creativity often is originated from the lack of financial resources, or ideal conditions to realize the plans we have. The artists of the circus recognized in Barnum a talent that he could not recognize in himself, the talent to look at the other without prejudice, in search of what the other has better, gold hidden in the mud.

The circus’ artists and Carlyle himself recognized that in addition to Barnum’s immense ambition, the need for acceptance and social recognition, he transformed people's lives, starting a process of social inclusion of utmost importance under numerous protests of people said normal, changing the mentality of the society, in a way that many of them did not realize.

This movie brings gold hidden in the mud afloat, talent and creativity were crucial to the transformation of all, since led to overcome many difficulties, prejudices, bringing self-esteem to the excluded and rejected by the society.

The predominance of father archetype is huge during all the film. Barnum’s mother is not referred in the movie, Charity’s and Carlyle’s mothers have no voice, no power to protect their children. General Tom Thumb’s mother hides him, respecting the rules of a patriarchal society.

Mothers had to hide their disabled children for too long time.

The father archetype’s rules dominated that society, without being questioned.

Present physically or not the Great Mother’s archetype is repressed, designed to inhabit the shadow of a society who loves under strict rules, if we could call it love.

The concepts of persona, shadow, anima/animus and the trickster archetype are important for the understanding of the story, but the need “to see” and “be seen” are all the time in the background of the movie.

Barnum sees Charity in a way that she was not seen at her home.

At her home she was shaped (put in a mold), polite and prepared to be ready to be a “lady”, she should learn to behave as such, without right to spontaneity, and probably her own individuality.

Barnum should be invisible when accompanying his father at work, but he plays with Charity, having her attention and making her laugh. How many times are expected that children become “invisible" when need to follow their parents in adults’ appointments? Barnum and Charity see each other, as they really are, two children who wish to play and having fun together, without the prejudices and distances imposed by fortune and social position. They interact at a relatively short distance, just looking to each other.

The first artist Barnum succeed to convince to participate in the show is the dwarf, seduced by the possibility to present himself as the main attraction of the show, dressed as a Queen’s official soldier. Barnum identified his fantasy through a toy found on the floor of the leaving room, observing the details and "reading" their meanings, he gave that man the opportunity to experience his dream of value and grandiosity on the stage of the show.

The bearded woman was “seen” first by her voice, he was already fascinated by her talent, even before he saw her.

Carlyle and Anne Wheeler felt in love at the first sight, literally transforming their lives upside-down, as Anne was at the trapeze, as his life was turned upside-down by their relationship, taking their relationship in public, confronting his parents, and losing his prestige and richness.

The artists of the show wanted to leave the shadows of a life lived in the darkness of not being seen and recognized, even at the risk of the public laughing at them.

Barnum fought to be seen and recognized during his entire lifetime, one of the first human needs that often can be overlapped by the need for food and security.

Everyone know that to be ignored, not to “be seen" is one of the worst punishments you can inflict to another human being. Especially children. We cannot forget that all circus’ artists were children who could not be seen, whose parents could be ashamed of them, or, who knows, were abandoned to his own destiny, as it still happens nowadays.

How many children with special needs are still abandoned and reject?

Our existence is reassured through the recognition of the other. There is no humanity without the existence and recognition of another human being. Perhaps that is the reason of the great exposure on social networks has become something so necessary today. This exposure not only complements, but also updates our so primordial necessity.

I am seen/recognized therefore I am.

Each person, appreciated with all its value is undoubtedly the greatest show on Earth.

Bibliographic References:

JAFFE, Aniela – “Jung’s Last Years and Other Essays”

JUNG, Carl Gustav – CW 9/1 “Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious”

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