C. Montgomery Burns and the Pursuit of True Happiness

By Steven Keslowitz

A chapter from “The Simpsons and Society” by Hats Off Books.

"One dollar for eternal happiness? … I'd be happier with the dollar." - Mr. Burns

Homer: "Ya know Mr. Burns, you're the richest guy I know - way richer than Lenny.
Mr. Burns: Yes, but I'd trade it all for a little more."

Mr. Burns holds several distinctions in the city of Springfield. For instance, he is the city's oldest resident, the richest, the most sinister, as well as the most ruthless capitalist. Still, the question of whether C. Montgomery Burns is truly happy is a difficult question to consider. On the one hand, he can afford any luxury he desires, and is given much respect by his loyal confidant, Waylon Smithers. However, there are several instances in which Mr. Burns displays his desire to attain something more out of life. Indeed, there are several distinct times in which Burns exhibits true human emotion - emotions that can not be satisfactorily abated through the utilization of his plentiful monies.

Mr. Burns' search for true love often crops up in various episodes of The Simpsons. For example, Burns dreams about Marge Simpson flying through his window while he is neatly tucked under his blanket. At this moment, Burns is so entranced by Marge's beauty that suddenly he appears like the rest of us. He is victim to the insuperable conquering power of love - as his money can not buy him Marge's heart. We empathize with Burns who suddenly appears frail, and perhaps innocent in the depths of unrequited love. In this particular situation the riches that Burns has accumulated are rendered meaningless. Burns' unrequited love for Marge demonstrates that money can not buy true love - or happiness.[1]

In addition to Burns' desire to find true love, we also see the 104 year old incessantly search for more money in attempts to increase his already prodigious worth. For example, he breaks into the Simpson household and steals the key to the Flying Hellfish treasure. Indeed, Burns demonstrates the characteristics of the ruthless capitalist, who will by no means stop in his quest for profits. However, one may consider why the fragile, 104 year old Burns would go to such lengths in order to obtain a strictly financial award. Certainly, one may argue, Burns has all the money he needs, and should have no legitimate reason for risking injury in an attempt to procure such superfluous funds. Still, Burns' insatiability is psychological, rather than physiological in nature. For example, at his Thanksgiving table, Burns is presented with a huge spread of different foods which Smithers has prepared for him. Burns compliments Smithers on the display, takes one small bite of turkey, and says something to the effect of "Oh I couldn't possibly eat another bite." Burns may certainly not be considered a glutton, but he does not order Smithers to prepare a smaller meal next year. Despite the fact that Burns does not touch over 99% of the food displayed on the table, the viewer can detect a sense of happiness from Burns, as he looks over the tremendous amount of food on the table. Burns is satisfied that the food is available to him, and this is where his insatiability ceases to exist. Once Burns knows that the food is available to him, he dismisses most of it. For him, simply knowing that the food is available is all the satisfaction that he requires.

Similarly, Burns would love to acquire as much money as he possibly can just so he can flaunt it about - he will never be able to spend all of his money. Thus, his feud with Grampa is psychologically based. He does not require the money to build a "safety net", nor does he need any additional monies to finance any luxurious ventures. The only reason that Burns wants to obtain the money is so that he can attain (the impossible goal of) complete and total satiability.

Another important example of Burns' lack of complete happiness may be found through an analysis of his association with his bear, Bobo. Burns' love for his teddy bear is so strong that he is willing to pay a large sum of money to the Simpson family for its return to his hands. Burns teaches us that certain items may be deemed priceless - and that money can not serve as an adequate substitute for emotional attachment. Although the audience may find it comical that a rich individual holds an emotional attachment to a stuffed animal, we can also relate to the feelings that Burns has no control over. For example, those who have held onto a particular toy or memento for years have experienced similar emotions. C. Montgomery Burns demonstrates that he is no different from the rest of us - despite his vast wealth. At times it seems as though the little things in life, the niceties, so to speak, are what makes us truly happy.

Any thorough analysis of Mr. Burns' state of happiness must include a consideration of whether or not Burns is a perfectionist. Let us begin with an analysis of Burns' utilization of the word "excellent" on many occasions. When something goes exactly Burns' way, he taps his fingers together, and utters "excellent". He does so in an almost victorious fashion. His utterance of the word "excellent" serves to demonstrate that Burns becomes content when something is absolutely perfect. Viewers can almost see the joy in stingy old Mr. Burns' eyes when something goes his way.

Perhaps perfectionism is a quality that is essential for a person to gain massive wealth. Mr. Burns will not settle for anything less than perfection in any endeavor. Perhaps this is why his "yes men" accountants tell him that his stock options are great when they're all but bankrupt. They certainly do not want to report any news to Burns that fails to meet his standard of excellence. If Burns truly is a perfectionist (and the evidence tends to point in this very direction), then it is understandable why he is often unhappy. Life, even for those who are rich, is not always perfect, and perfectionists lack the capability to accept this critical slice of life.

Burns' cut-throat, selfish personality may also contribute to his lack of contentedness. He is not a "team player" by any definition of the phrase. For example, take the situation in which he wants to join the Pin Pals:

Burns: Listen here… I want to join your team.
Homer: You want to join my what?
Smithers: You want to what his team?
Burns: I've had one of my unpredictable changes of heart. Seeing these fine young athletes, reveling in the humiliation of a vanquished foe… mmm, I haven't felt this energized since my last… er… boweling.
[Later, after winning the championship]
Homer: Woo hoo! We won! We won!
Burns: You mean, I won.
Apu: But we were a team, sir.
Burns: Oh, I'm afraid I've had one of my trademark changes of heart. You see, teamwork will only take you so far. Then, the truly evolved person makes that extra grab for personal glory. Now, I must discard my teammates, much like the boxer must shed roll after roll of sweaty, useless, disgusting flab before he can win the title. Ta! [He leaves] ("Team Homer") [2]

Burns' lack of camaraderie with his teammates coupled with his inherent selfish nature serves to alienate him from other members of society. Burns might attain happiness for the moment, but in the long run he cannot achieve true happiness without the friendship of others.

Burns' realization of his infirmities also contributes to his lack of happiness. For example, in "The Springfield Files", in which Burns is mistaken for an alien, he states "A lifetime of being in a nuclear power plants has left me with a healthy green glow - and has left me as impotent as the Nevada boxing commissioner." Thus, Burns' lack of happiness is rooted both psychologically and physiologically. He realizes that he is impotent, and is mentally distraught by the concept. Since the actual cause of this stress is physiological, Burns has a legitimate reason to be distraught: he is inadequate as a man (sexually). While Burns is content that he is extremely wealthy, he is also upset that he cannot enjoy the pleasures, (and perhaps duties, from a religious perspective) that most human beings carry out. Burns' lack of happiness is partially rooted in his incapacity to perform the same functions as other individuals. In reality, what Burns truly desires is to be like everyone else (in matters of love, sex, performing everyday tasks). He despises these short-comings, and thus can never be truly happy.

Finally, further evidence of Burns' lack of true happiness comes from the fact that he occasionally engages in activities orchestrated to relate to the "common" man. Burns' participation in the following events serve to support this thesis: Burns comes over to the Simpson home to watch the fight, joins the Pin Pals, and drinks beers with Homer at Isotopes games. In one episode, Burns talks with Homer, and effectively lowers himself to the common man:
Burns: "Oh, yes, sitting-the great leveler. From the mightiest pharaoh to the lowliest peasant, who doesn't enjoy a good sit?"

Furthermore, it may be argued that Burns experiences his happiest moment when Smithers is on vacation, and he must drive a car, answer a telephone, and shop in a supermarket by himself. Burns tends to be happiest when he is not himself. Thus, he does indeed lack the ideal of true happiness.

[1] Indeed, the middle-class industrialized employee, Homer J. Simpson is viewed as the "fortunate" man in this situation, as he has successfully won the heart of Marge. For a more thorough discussion of Homer's role as the industrialized employee, please see a later chapter in this volume.

[2] Quote found in The Simpsons and Philosophy

© 2003 Steven Keslowitz

An excerpt from The Simpsons and Society: An Analysis of Our Favorite Family and Its Influence in Contemporary Society” by Steven Keslowitz.

Used by permission of the author. Posted November 5, 2003.

Also see a review by the New York Daily News.

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