It’s an odd connection to make, but with Mother’s Day this weekend (and Father’s Day coming up in about a month), I find myself thinking about Alfred Pennyworth and his daughter, Julia. (Hopefully, I’ll make that connection clear by the end of this post.)
One of my favorite scenes in Batman Eternal, the 2014 limited series by Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, and others, is the conversation between Alfred and Julia in issue #12. Julia, an agent of the British Special Air Service, was injured in a fight with Shen Fang, and Batman has brought her back to Gotham to convalesce at Wayne Manor. Julia and Alfred haven’t seen each other in years, and Julia has no idea that Bruce is Batman or that her father spends his evenings helping the Dark Knight fight crime. She thinks of her father (who was once a medic in the British Army as well as a celebrated stage actor) is now little more than a manservant to a spoiled billionaire:
Eventually, Julia learns the truth about both Alfred and Batman and becomes an integral part of the team (over comms, Batman calls her “Penny Two”), but Julia’s initial disdain for her father and his work reminds me a lot of the way that our society generally ranks and values work and duty.
In general, we value and honor certain kinds of work while ignoring others who also deserve honor and thanks, people whose work makes other kinds of work possible. We call people who have made it into the prestigious positions “successful,” and we tend to devalue the work that, if we’re honest, makes all those prestigious jobs possible. I see this very often in my own profession, higher education. Administrators and researchers receive all the prestige and honor, and while what they do is worthwhile and deserves respect, none of it would be possible (or even necessary) without the humbler vocation of teaching. And this kind of attitude prevails throughout other professions.
This is why Alfred has such an important place in Batman stories. He can teach us a lot about the kind of work that goes on in the trenches, the work that forms the foundation of everything else, the work that keeps society going when it would otherwise fall apart. He deserves far more respect and praise than Julia gives him in the beginning. In fact, if Alfred got what he really deserved, all of Gotham would thank him, but that can’t happen because the nature of the work requires secrecy. Nobody can ever know what Batman and Penny One do to protect Gotham from the forces of evil that constantly threaten to burn it to the ground. Batman can only be Batman because no one knows who he really is.
But that’s not the only reason that secrecy is important to Alfred’s work. While some kinds of work gain public honor and awards for a job well done, Alfred’s work would lose its dignity and honor if people in general knew about it. Indeed, it’s his private sacrifice of time and effort that gives Alfred’s vocation its value. If he were to receive honor and praise from the people of Gotham for what he and Batman do, the dignity of the work would be diminished. And this is true of Alfred in a way that it isn’t true even of Batman. After all, people know the name of the Batman. They fear him and respect him. But while Batman must show his face to the world (even if only at night), Alfred works entirely from the shadows. No one who benefits from Alfred’s calling fears or respects him, yet their hero would never be able to help them if not for the quiet patience and diligence of the old butler.
In Batman v Superman, Bruce tells the butler, “I don’t deserve you, Alfred.” He’s not wrong. And those of us who live in the real world can also say the same about the people we sometimes forget in our own lives––the mothers who quietly toil without thanks or reward; the fathers; the teachers; the nurses; all those who work in the shadows for the good of others, the ones whose work will never receive the awards or celebrations that they deserve. We don’t deserve you.