Hal meeting at a stranger’s funeral. However, it
Hal Ashby’s, Harold and Maude, explores the understanding of death and the fragility of human life through the lens of the humanist imagination. In this essay, I will seek to demonstrate how he does so through the themes of love, freedom and resistance. Ultimately, through these themes, Harold and Maude teaches us that the recognition and acceptance of the impermanence of life, while continuing to engage and live with passion, is crucial to a meaningful existence. The dark comedy opens with twentyone year old lead character Harold, in an extravagant mansion preparing to hang himself. Throughout Harold and Maude’s relationship, the viewer comes to learn of Harold’s fixation on suicide, due an experience he had with his mother as a child. Harold witnessed his mother’s reaction to the news of his death, and incessantly sought out similar reactions. Instead however, Harold’s mother had become accustomed to his suicidal tendencies. In contrast, Maude shows Harold love. Perhaps Harold’s continuous suicide attempts are meant to symbolically show how Harold and those surrounding him have embraced forms of nihilism. Similar to Harold, his mother and uncle also are withdrawn from life, with his mother obsessing over menial tasks, and his uncle, consumed by his past military career. Maude could be interpreted as a humanist as she is critical of dogma and emphasizes the value and agency of human beings. The viewer may see this through the theme of anti-authoritarianism and Maude’s push for freedom. One may see how this attitude liberated Harold from the rule of his psychiatrist, priest, mother, militant uncle and his apathy towards life. Both 79 year old Maude and Harold have a connection to death as exemplified in their chance meeting at a stranger’s funeral. However, it becomes clear that the two have contrasting views on life and death, with Maude viewing death as a necessary part of life. Maude’s outlook is perhaps challenging the characters lethargy. The film seems to be commenting on the lack of urgency in which the characters lives exist, and the lack of individualism within it. Maude met the lost and sad Harold at a point when the contemplation of suicide became his norm and overtook his desire to live. For Harold, Maude may also be interpreted as a messianic figure of sorts, drawing resemblance to the narrative of Jesus, and Christian imagination. Harold on the other hand, could be understood as representative of humanity, lost and wandering, all the while contemplating the meaning of life and death. That is until Maude appears and teaches him both the significance and fragility of life. Like Jesus, not much is known about Maude prior to her appearance. All of Maude’s actions and stories were parabolic and like Jesus, she had both anticipated and accepted her death. Though one may posit Maude is Jewish, her beliefs seem to function at a higher level than any authoritative constructs of religion. This was exemplified when Harold asked Maude if she prayed. She answered “No, I communicate”. “With God?”, Harold asked. “With life” Maude replied. The film was perhaps using Maude as a way for both Harold and the audience to examine morality and its roots. Though subtly, through the depiction of the Holocaust tattoo on Maude’s arm, the film warns us that when accepting the status quo, just as the Nazis, anyone can be controlled and breed danger. Ultimately, Harold and Maude is a commentary on death and the finite nature of human life. Through Maude’s humanist perspective, the film seems to display God as inessential to living a meaningful life. The film sheds light on the fact that human indifference and blind acceptance of authority, whether religious or not can have dangerous outcomes on both an individual and large scale. Maude seems to suggest that there is a greater significance to human existence, however not godly or authoritative in nature. Through the themes of love, freedom and resistance, Maude points to humanity alone and the value of consciousness as containing a higher meaning. The film asserts that love, freedom and resistance are righteous, and necessary actions even if it means going against the grain of society. Harold and Maude shows us through the existential understanding of death and the fragility of human life, there is still the possibility to lead a meaningful life by loving one another, remaining engaged and resisting authoritarian rule.