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Mary Poppins: A Nietzschean View

Somewhat recently, Paw (a reviewer on the thatguywiththeglasses site) reviewed Mary Poppins. In his review he often mentioned the shift of order to ‘chaos,’ especially in the case of George Banks, the employer of Mary Poppins and the father of the children she nannies. Out of all the characters in the film it is Mr. Banks that changes most substantially.

Ah yussssss

As noted already, this change shifts from one of strict order to one of a care free chaos. And this is where the philosophy of Friederich Nietzsche comes in. Nietzche, who was writing nearly at the same time that Mary Poppins is set, has much in common with his own philosophy and that of the development of George Banks. In 1872, Nietzsche published his first work of philosophy, The Birth of Tragedy, in which he spends a great deal of time discussing the differences between order and chaos. For Nietzsche these two components are transformed (for descriptive purposes) from order to chaos, to Apollonian and Dionysian. In terms of their mythological origins in Ancient Greece, Apollo was the God of Reason, hence the association with order, while Dionysus was the God of Ecstasy and Intoxication, composing chaos.

My mustache is better

When applied to Mary Poppins the transformation of George Banks is one from an Apollonian one to that of a Dionysian. These two frames owe much to Banks’ profession as well as the period setting of the film. Unsurprisingly, George Banks is a banker at one of the largest banks in London. This also occurs during the English Victorian era. A period marking general English global power, wealth, and some of the most distinguishing class disparity in English history. The Banks’ family clearly belongs to an upper-middle, if not upper, class. And the character of George Banks clearly fits the archetype of an individual in this economic bracket.

His worldview is dominated by the presence of finances, as well the reason behind the meaning and value of money. There is no clear pleasure seen in the earlier version of the character beyond that of one completely dedicated to reason and the Victorian system. As the film intends this is superficial curtain for a clear purpose. This heavily borrows from Nietzsche’s idea that Apollonian aspects were illusions and empty. In essence, the individual who dons an Apollonian perspective is denying themselves a complete life. Nietzsche argues that humans need to move away from this Apollonian frame and one of a more Dionysian placement. Just as George Banks undergoes in the film.

Opposing George Banks’ original characterization is that of Mary Poppins and Bert. Both are the near perfect image of a Dionysian individual operating in Victorian society. There’s no social constraints placed on their perspectives on life. The character of Bert is a great foil to George Banks. Bert is on the other end of the British hierarchical system, making a living on a daily basis, but content in his life. Nor does he completely operate on reason, but rather for a pursuit of enjoyment in life. While this portrayal of Dionysian is tame for a connotation of chaos and the ecstasy suggested by the mention of Dionysus it fits the time of production and that of the Disney company.

A popular form of Dionysian dancing

Finally, under these circumstances that the transformation of George Banks is one of a Dionysian influence. This can be inferred by his quit notice at the bank, a potential symbol for a dedication to reason based society, the influence of both Mary Poppins and Bert, and the idea of pursuing pleasure (via kite flying in the park). They contradict greatly his previous outlook and are more akin to that of Mary Poppins and Bert, a Dionysian one. The final scene of the family leaving the park marks this transformation. In Nietzsche’s view this could only mark the acceptance of a complete life (through the production limitations of the film).

Given the emphasis in Mary Poppins on the transformative nature of George Banks’ character it’s hard not to view the film owing to Nietzschean philosophy. The earlier characterization of Banks clearly fits an Apollonian model in Victorian English society, while that of Mary Poppins and Bert is far Dionysian considering their opposite nature to Victorian culture. Their influence on the life of George Banks and his family help manifest his transformation from the standard Apollonian perspective to one of the more counter-culture Dionysian model.

I'm not sure about this fun thing, but I'll give it a try.

There’s also that whole business of his wife being a Women’s Suffragette activist, but I’m sure that had no effect on Victorian social history whatsoever. Yup.




  1. social media
    July 29, 2013 at 2:53 pm

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  2. Damien
    September 27, 2017 at 11:10 pm

    There’s also reference to Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal recurrence when we are first introduced to Bert and he says something along the lines of having a feeling that everything about to happen has happened before.

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