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Rodents to Freedom

Matthew Coniam says that Groundhog Day explains existentialism more entertainingly than Sartre.

Groundhog Day (1993) was one of the most critically acclaimed and popular American film comedies of the nineteen-nineties, admired both for its warm-hearted romance and for the delightful comic absurdity of its central premise. In this article I aim to show that it is also something else, at least until its somewhat unsatisfying ending: one of the most cogent and intelligent extended dramatic metaphors for the central tenets of humanist existentialism ever presented on a cinema screen. (Of course, this is not to say that it was actually intended thus, but it is intriguing to note that its star, the comic actor Bill Murray, made the film shortly after a period in which he had taken a break from his film career to pursue other interests, including the study of philosophy…)

In the film Murray plays Phil Connors, a cynical, worldweary television weatherman making the annual trip to a rural Groundhog festival, whereby according to legend, the behaviour of a small rodent produced from a box indicates how soon winter will end and spring begin. The day is, as usual, a nightmare for him, but the real ordeal begins the following morning: Connors wakes to discover that for some inexplicable reason it is Groundhog Day again. Everything happens exactly as it did the day before but only he seems to realise the fact. The next day it happens again, and again, and again… Connors is trapped, and forced to endure the worst day of his life over and over again.

Both in concept and execution the film works perfectly as existential allegory. One of the key existential texts – Albert Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus – likened the human condition to that of the Sisyphus of Greek legend, condemned by the gods to roll a huge rock up a hill, only to then see it roll down again and be forced to repeat the process over and over for eternity. This is exactly the position in which Connors finds himself in the film: endlessly enduring a ritual he finds unpleasant and pointless, never knowing why and seemingly the only person aware of the situation. Further, he has no way of obtaining an explanation, because there is nobody qualified to provide one. It is the existential picture of life in a Godless universe.

The second part of the film documents the ways in which Connors attempts to meet the existential challenges posed by his predicament. Accordingly, we see him pass through three distinctly Sartrean phases. First, he is opportunistic, exploiting the advantages his situation offers him in terms of financial gain, sexual experience and physical pleasure. (This equates with using the pursuit of hedonism to distract one’s attention from existential questions.) He studies the movements of a security van so as to execute a flawless robbery when the delivery is repeated exactly the following day, he drives recklessly and initiates a police chase, he asks an attractive woman in a café point-blank questions about her childhood so as to return the next day and pass himself off as an old school-friend, and he feasts gluttonously on confectionery in the knowledge that a heart attack is a physical impossibility. But the realisation that whatever he gains is automatically taken away the next day plunges him into stage two, which is pessimism; the natural and justified reaction to existential absurdity according to Sartre and Camus. (Their philosophy was in part an attempt to argue their way clear of this abyss; Sisyphus famously begins: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”) So Connors makes various melodramatic attempts at self-destruction which, though successful at the time, are not enough to prevent him from waking fit and well the next day to begin the torture of Groundhog Day yet again. Seeing that neither of these impulsive attempts to escape his nightmare offer emotional escape (in the first case) or literal escape (in the second) he finally faces the necessity of engaging squarely with the true nature of his existence. In Sartre’s terminology he here begins to live authentically, as the film ponders such explicitly Sartrean issues as freedom, choice and responsibility. For Connors, it means engaging in activities which, if not objectively useful, do at least have cumulative value. He begins taking music lessons, the results of which he can remember the following day even if his instructor cannot. (She instead sees him as a new pupil every day, but one who begins each day with a different level of ability.) He also commits himself to a sense of morality and values by helping others. The fact that these acts of generosity are always consigned to total oblivion twenty-four hours later is a beautifully neat illustration of the problem existentialism has in accounting for codes of ethics: if life has no meaning then morality has no logical justification, so how can we authenticate the need to behave selflessly? Sartre teaches us that there is no ultimate authority; we must follow the course of action that we feel to be correct, and capitulation to any other interests – especially the demands of convention – is an act of personal betrayal. Yet in choosing to help others, however pointlessly in an ultimate sense, Connors is affirming the hope nurtured by both Sartre and Camus that there is some objective sense in which a fundamental decency is more personally rewarding than selfishness and the pursuit of empty sensation.

I have already mentioned the fact that the final scene is disappointing and so it is; for it sacrifices philosophical consistency in the pursuit of a routine happy ending. Throughout the film, Connors’ attempts to romance his producer (Andie Macdowell) have, in keeping with the philosophic journey he undergoes, become progressively less lecherous and more sincere. By the end, the genuine affection he feels for her is poignantly tinged by the knowledge that, however likeable he shows himself to be, the next day will see him back where he started, with her disliking him for his past sarcasm and obnoxiousness. The film’s ending has them falling in love and then, miraculously, waking up together the morning after Groundhog Day. With the nightmare over, they are free to begin a life together. For some weird reason, the inexplicable termination of Connors’ ordeal feels like a cheat, though in fairness it really shouldn’t, any more than its equally inexplicable commencement. Not only does it give the film a sense of anti-climax, it leaves it looking like a trite morality tale along the lines of Dickens’ Christmas Carol: Connors is being punished for misanthropy, and as soon as he becomes a good guy the curse is lifted.

Obviously, a film that is first and foremost a lighthearted romance cannot end pessimistically. But I think that there is a way the film could have ended which would have been both philosophically authentic and still objectively ‘happy’, allowing the audience to go home smiling, yet leaving Connors trapped in the endless loop of Groundhog Day. How? Camus could have told you – just remember Sisyphus. Camus concluded that we have to imagine Sisyphus as happy in his labour; that values can be constructed and simple contentment can be found in the face of cosmic absurdity. So we should have seen the realisation by Connors (as indeed we were beginning to in the film’s second half) that while his existence is baffling and frustrating, lacking both meaning and explanation, there will always be times when the dread import of his position seems simply to fall away. We can come to terms with it, just. The choice is either to give in to nausea and futility or to make the best of the unsatisfactory hand we have been dealt. It’s like Woody Allen’s definition of life in Annie Hall as full of misery and suffering and all over much too quickly, which he illustrates with a joke about two old ladies in a restaurant. One says to the other “The food here is terrible”, and the other agrees “Yes, and such small portions.” However unsatisfying life may seem to one in the throes of existential despair, the prospect of death’s oblivion usually makes it seem more palatable. Groundhog Day may fall mockingly short of being Phil Connors’ ideal day, but it’s the only day he’s got, and – as he shows – it is possible to make something of it, however short-lived, illusory or irrational. Such an ending would transmit a message that is powerfully optimistic and affirmative, while still playing fair by that lonely hero pushing his rock uphill.

© Matthew Coniam 2001

When not at the National Portrait Gallery in London, where he works in the bookshop, Matthew Coniam is a freelance writer on film, art and philosophy.

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