“The untold want, by life and land ne’er granted,
Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.”– Walt Whitman, “The Untold Want”
Now, Voyager, directed by Irving Rapper, was released in 1942 and became a success. To this day it remains a beloved classic and, arguably, one of Bette Davis’s greatest roles (out of many great roles).
I think it’s one of the most romantic movies ever made. It’s one of many of my comfort films; I can watch it just about anytime and never get tired of it. When I watched it again recently, the mental health aspect resonated with me more than it has in the past. I realized how much I relate to Charlotte Vale (the protagonist) in ways, like having self-esteem issues and being afraid to stand up for yourself. The more I work on fighting these issues, the more self-aware I become and the more I appreciate the characters I see onscreen who struggle with the same issues.
Bette Davis plays Charlotte Vale, a self-appointed “spinster aunt” who is emotionally abused by her overbearing and (possibly) narcissistic mother (Gladys Cooper). She is the youngest daughter and knows that she was unwanted, and all of this has destroyed Charlotte’s self-esteem.
Charlotte’s sister-in-law Lisa (Ilka Chase) senses that she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and asks Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), a well-respected psychiatrist, to visit her.
At first, Charlotte resists the idea because of the shame she receives from her mother. She is ashamed that Charlotte may have to visit a sanitarium in order to rest. She even says, “No member of the Vale family has ever had a nervous breakdown.” This particular statement is infuriating. The last thing people who are struggling with mental health need to hear are statements like this. To think this way is to shut out any empathy for people who need validation and understanding, which is dangerous and cruel.
Once Charlotte has rested and received help from Dr. Jaquith at his sanitarium, she is released and – instead of returning home to her mother – embarks on a cruise to South America. This is a huge step forward for Charlotte, who always wanted to go on a pleasure cruise. Her mother disapproved of them, so she was never allowed to enjoy them when she was younger. There’s a moment on the cruise when Charlotte even thinks back to her mother and smiles, knowing that she’s defying her and having fun.
On the cruise, she meets Jeremiah (Jerry) Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henreid), and they fall in love. As they get to know each other and fall in love, Charlotte’s self-esteem issues lessen and she blooms. She makes friends on the cruise, including Jerry’s friends Deb and Frank McIntyre. She learns that Jerry is married and has children, but does not love his wife – who is jealous and manipulative and does not love their youngest daughter, Tina, who is a lot like Charlotte.
Since Jerry is still married, they decide that they will not continue seeing each other. Charlotte returns home, as does Jerry. Charlotte’s transformation shocks her family, especially her mother, who predictably disapproves of Charlotte’s new look and her newfound independence. But Charlotte stands up to her this time and it’s so satisfying to watch.
During their final argument, in which Charlotte says that she didn’t ask to be born and that her mother didn’t want her, her mother is so shocked that she has a heart attack and dies. This causes Charlotte to be overcome with guilt and she returns to Dr. Jaquith’s sanitarium.
Upon her arrival to the sanitarium, Charlotte discovers that Tina, Jerry’s youngest daughter, is staying there as well. She immediately takes to Tina, who reminds her of herself. Tina feels unloved by everyone except her father, lonely, ugly, and miserable.
Charlotte takes her under her wing and reminds her that she is loved and beautiful – inside and out.
Once Tina improves, Charlotte is given permission to bring her home with her to Boston. When Dr. Jaquith brings Jerry to Charlotte’s home to visit, he is amazed at her improvement.
And then, of course, comes the iconic ending – one of the most romantic ever put on film. One of my favorite parts is when Charlotte refers to Tina as Jerry’s child and Jerry, without skipping a beat, says, “our child”. His earnestness, understanding, and love for Charlotte always makes me swoon.
And the Oscar-winning score, composed by Max Steiner, is the icing on the cake. Charlotte and Jerry’s love theme is unforgettable.
The powerful transformation we see in Charlotte – from someone afraid of the world to someone who embraces life, stands up for herself, and learns to love herself and others – is inspiring and always relevant. For someone like me, and many other people who have struggled with self-worth and confidence, we are drawn to stories that are validating and, well, human. It’s cathartic in the best way.