The Themes of "You Can't Take It With You"

The Wit and Wisdom of Grandpa Vanderhof

'You Can't Take It With You' on theater marquee
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You Can't Take It With You has been delighting audiences since 1936. Written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, this Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy celebrates non-conformity.

Meet the Vanderhof Family

"Grandpa" Martin Vanderhof was once part of the competitive business world. However, one day he realized he was unhappy. So, he stopped working. Since that time, he spends his days catching and raising snakes, watching graduation ceremonies, visiting old friends, and doing whatever else he wants to do. The members of his household are just as eccentric:

  • His daughter Penny writes plays simply because a few years ago "typewriter was delivered to the house by accident." She also paints. Easily distracted, Penny never finishes a single project.
  • His son-in-law Paul Sycamore spends hours in the basement making illegal fireworks and playing with erector sets.
  • His granddaughter Essie sells candy and has been clumsily attempting ballet for over eight years.
  • His grandson-in-law Ed Carmichael plays the xylophone (or tries to) and accidentally distributes Marxist propaganda.

In addition to the family, many "oddball" friends come and go from the Vanderhof house. Although it should be said, some never leave. Mr. DePinna, the man who used to deliver ice, now helps out with the fireworks and dresses in Greek togas to pose for Penny's portraits.

The Appeal of You Can't Take It With You

Perhaps America has been in love with You Can't Take It With You because we all see a little bit of ourselves in Grandpa and his family members. Or, if not, perhaps we want to be like them.

Many of us go through living up to the expectations of others. As a college teacher, I meet a surprising number of students who are majoring in accounting or engineering simply because their parents expect them to.

Grandpa Vanderhof understands the preciousness of life; he pursues his own interests, his own forms of fulfillment. He encourages others to follow their dreams, and not submit to the will of others. In this scene, Grandpa Vanderhof is headed out to chat with an old friend, a policeman on the corner:

Grandpa: I have known him since he was a little boy. He's a doctor. But after he graduated, he came to me and said he didn't want to be a doctor. He had always wanted to be a policeman. So I said, you go ahead and be a policeman if that's what you want. And that's what he did.

Do What You Love!

Now, not everyone favors Grandpa's happy-go-lucky attitude towards life. Many might view his family of dreamers as impractical and childish. Serious-minded characters such as the business tycoon Mr. Kirby believe that if everyone behaved as the Vanderhof clan, nothing productive would ever happen. Society would fall apart.

Grandpa argues that there are plenty of people who wake up and want to go to work on Wall Street. By being productive members of society (executives, salesmen, CEOs, etc) many serious-minded people are following their heart's desire.

However, others may wish to march to the beat of a different xylophone. By the play's end, Mr. Kirby comes to accept the Vanderhof philosophy. He realizes that he is unhappy with his own career and decides to pursue a more enriching lifestyle.

Grandpa Vanderhof vs the Internal Revenue Service

One of the most entertaining subplots of You Can't Take It With You involves the IRS Agent, Mr. Henderson. He arrives to inform Grandpa that he owes the government for decades of unpaid income tax. Grandpa has never paid his income taxes because he doesn't believe in it.

Grandpa: Suppose I pay you this money-mind you, I don't say I'm going to do it-but just for the sake of argument-what's the Government going to do with it?
Henderson: What do you mean?
Grandpa: Well, what do I get for my money? If I go into Macy's and buy something, there it is-I see it. What's the Government give me?
Henderson: Why, the Government gives you everything. It protects you.
Grandpa: What from?
Henderson: Well-invasion. Foreigners that might come over here and take everything you've got.
Grandpa: Oh I don't think they're goin to do that.
Henderson: If you didn't pay an income tax, they would. How do you think the Government keeps up the Army and Navy? All those battleships...
Grandpa: Last time we used battleships was in the Spanish-American War, and what did we get out of it? Cuba-and we gave it back. I wouldn't mind paying if it were something sensible.

Don't you wish you could deal with bureaucracies as easily as Grandpa Vanderhof? Eventually, the conflict with the IRS is light-heartedly resolved when the United States Government believes that Mr. Vanderhof has been dead for several years!

You Really Can't Take It With You

The message of the title is perhaps common sense: All the wealth we amass does not go with us beyond the grave (despite what Egyptian Mummies might think!). If we choose money over happiness, we will become stuffy and miserable just like the affluent Mr. Kirby.

Does this mean that You Can't Take It With You is a comical attack on capitalism? Certainly not. The Vanderhof household, in many ways, is the embodiment of the American Dream. They have a wonderful place to live, they are happy, and they are each pursuing their individual dreams.

For some people, happiness is yelling at Stock Market numbers. For others, happiness is playing the xylophone off-key or wildly dancing a unique ballet. Grandpa Vanderhof teaches us that there are many pathways to happiness. Make certain you follow your own.

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Bradford, Wade. "The Themes of "You Can't Take It With You"." ThoughtCo, Sep. 16, 2020, Bradford, Wade. (2020, September 16). The Themes of "You Can't Take It With You". Retrieved from Bradford, Wade. "The Themes of "You Can't Take It With You"." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).