Bart Sells His Soul
"Bart Sells His Soul" is the fourth episode of The Simpsons' seventh season. It first aired in the United States on the Fox network, on October 8, 1995. In the episode, while being punished for playing a prank at church, Bart declares that there is no such thing as a soul and to prove it he sells his to Milhouse for $5 in the form of a piece of paper with "Bart Simpson's soul" written on it. Lisa warns Bart he will regret this decision, and Bart soon witnesses odd changes in his life. Believing he really has lost his soul, he becomes desperate to get it back. Lisa eventually acquires it and returns it to a relieved Bart.
"Bart Sells His Soul" was written by Greg Daniels, who was inspired by an experience from his youth where he had purchased a bully's soul. Director Wesley Archer and his team of animators visited Chili's for examples to use in Moe's family restaurant. The episode includes cultural references to the song "In a Gadda Da Vida", by Iron Butterfly, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and a parody of the book Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret., by Judy Blume.
Writers from the fields of religion, philosophy, popular culture, and psychology cited the episode in books discussing The Simpsons and the show's approach to the nature of the soul. The episode was positively received by the media, and is regarded as one of the seventh season's and the series' best. The creative team of The Simpsons puts the episode among the top five best episodes of the series, and series creator Matt Groening cited "Bart Sells His Soul" as one of his favorite episodes. It has been used by secondary schools in religious education courses as a teaching tool.
During a church service, Bart tricks the congregation by distributing the lyrics to a hymn titled "In the Garden of Eden" by "I. Ron Butterfly", which is actually the psychedelic rock song "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" by Iron Butterfly, that the unwitting parishioners and organist proceed to perform for 17 minutes. Reverend Lovejoy demands that the perpetrator step forward, with threats of fire and brimstone, at which Milhouse snitches on Bart. As punishment, Lovejoy assigns them both (Milhouse for snitching) to clean the organ pipes. Bart is indignant with Milhouse, who claims he feared damnation of his soul. Bart proclaims that there is no such thing as a soul and for $5 agrees to sell his to Milhouse in the form of a piece of paper saying "Bart Simpson's soul". Lisa warns Bart that he will regret selling his soul, but he dismisses her fears. However, Bart soon finds that Santa's Little Helper and Snowball II seem hostile towards him, automatic doors fail to open for him, when he breathes on the freezer doors at the Kwik-E-Mart no condensation forms, and he can no longer laugh at Itchy & Scratchy cartoons. Suspecting he really did lose his soul, he sets out to retrieve it.
Bart attempts to get his soul back from Milhouse, who refuses to return it for less than $50. That night, Bart has a nightmare about being the only child in Springfield who does not have a soul. Lisa taunts Bart with a dinnertime prayer leading him to make a desperate, all-out attempt to get the piece of paper back. Bart crosses town to where Milhouse and his parents are staying with his grandmother while their house is being fumigated. The visit turns out to be fruitless; Milhouse had traded the paper to Comic Book Guy at the Android's Dungeon. A frustrated Bart spends the rest of the night camped out in front of the Android's Dungeon in order to be at the shop when it opens.
The following morning, an annoyed Comic Book Guy tells Bart that he no longer has the piece of paper but refuses to reveal to whom he sold it. Bart walks home in the rain, then in his room he prays to God for his soul. Suddenly, a piece of paper with the words "Bart Simpson's soul" floats down from above. Bart discovers that Lisa had purchased the piece of paper. While she explains philosophers' opinions on the human soul, Bart happily eats up the piece of paper. Realizing how uninterested Bart was in about her lecture about the human soul, Lisa tells him that she hoped he learned his lesson from this. At night when Bart goes to bed, he and his soul are having fun with their quirks, proving that Bart did learn his lesson in the consequences of selling his soul.
In the subplot, Moe wants to expand his customer base by turning his tavern into a family restaurant called "Uncle Moe's Family Feedbag". The stress of running a family restaurant by himself ultimately unnerves him, and he finally snaps at a little girl. The restaurant is a failure, forcing Moe to revert the restaurant back to a run-down tavern.
"Bart Sells His Soul" was the second episode to have Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein as executive producers. Oakley and Weinstein wanted to start the season with episodes that had an emotional bias in an effort to center the Simpson family. The episode was written by Greg Daniels, who originally had an idea for a plot that dealt with racism in Springfield. The writers did not think The Simpsons was the right forum for it, so Daniels suggested the idea of selling someone's soul, which originated in his childhood. In high school, Daniels encouraged a bully to sell him his soul for 50 cents, and then convinced classmates to frighten the bully into buying his soul back for an inflated price. Daniels repeated this ploy, but stopped when he realized that the only other person in history who has profited off others' souls was Satan, and that "scared" him. In the opening scene of the episode, the congregation of the First Church of Springfield are tricked into singing "In a Gadda Da Vida" by Iron Butterfly. Daniels had originally intended for the song to be "Jesus He Knows Me" by British rock band Genesis, but the producers were unable to obtain the rights to use it.
The episode was directed by Wesley Archer. Archer and his team of animators went to the restaurant chain Chili's to get inspiration for the background designs of Moe's family restaurant. He said it was "quite a task" to transform Moe's Tavern into a family-oriented establishment. Archer added that he was not "quite happy" with the result, and that they could have designed it "a little better". Weinstein recalled that there was contention between the animators about the way Moe looked in the episode. Moe's original design includes a missing tooth, but Weinstein and Oakley felt that it did not "look right" because Moe was such a prominent character in the episode. Archer showed the original design of Moe from the first season to the show runners, and said: "Here, look. He's got a missing tooth!", but the scenes that had Moe with a missing tooth in them were still reanimated. Archer was disappointed with the dream sequence in which Bart sees his friends playing with their souls. Archer said that he had forgotten to tell the animators to make the souls transparent, so they were painted blue instead.
Kurt M. Koenigsberger comments in Leaving Springfield that "a good deal of enjoyment" is to be had from the episode, due to "the exposure of the hypocrisy behind 'the finance of salvation' and the ambivalent operations of the commercial world". Don Cupitt, a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, believes that when Lisa lectures Bart about the soul, she "shows a degree of theological sophistication which is simply not tolerated in Britain." Paul Bloom and David Pizarro write in The Psychology of The Simpsons that although Lisa does show "healthy religious skepticism" she still believes in an eternal soul. However, Lisa tells Bart at the end of the episode, "some philosophers believe that no one is born with a soul, you have to earn one through suffering". Bloom and Pizarro acknowledge "Indeed, some philosophers and theologians say that without belief in a soul, one cannot make sense of the social concepts on which we rely, such as personal responsibility and freedom of the will."
M. Keith Booker cites the episode in Drawn to Television, while discussing The Simpsons treatment of religion. Booker cites a scene from the episode where Milhouse asks Bart what religions have to gain by lying about concepts such as the existence of a soul – and then the scene cuts to Reverend Lovejoy counting his money; Booker believes that this implies that religions create mythologies so that they can gain money from followers. He juxtaposes this with Bart's realization later in the episode that "life suddenly feels empty and incomplete" without a soul, which suggests "either that the soul is real or it is at least a useful fiction". Mark I. Pinsky and Samuel F. Parvin discuss the episode in their book The Gospel According to the Simpsons: Leader's Guide for Group Study, and use examples from it to stimulate discussion among youth about the nature of the soul. Pinsky and Parvin note Bart's statement to Milhouse from the beginning of the episode: "Soul — come on, Milhouse, there's no such thing as a soul. It's just something they made up to scare kids, like the Boogie Man or Michael Jackson," and then suggest questions to ask students, including whether they know individuals that agree with Bart, and their views on the existence of a soul.
In Planet Simpson, Chris Turner quotes Bart's revelation to Lisa that he sold his soul to Milhouse for five dollars and used the money to buy sponges shaped like dinosaurs. After Lisa criticizes Bart for selling his soul, Bart responds: "Poor gullible, Lisa. I'll keep my crappy sponges, thanks." Turner comments "Here Bart is the epitome of the world-weary hipster, using the degraded language of modern marketing to sell off the most sacred parts of himself because he knows that some cheap sponge is more real, hence more valuable, than even the loftiest of abstract principles."
On the DVD audio commentary for the episode, writer Greg Daniels cited Martin Scorsese's 1985 film After Hours as an influence on Bart's night-time trek to retrieve his soul from Milhouse, only to experience a series of unusual encounters. Reverend Lovejoy leads his congregation in a hymnal version of the song "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida", by Iron Butterfly, titled "In the Garden of Eden". The version of the song in The Simpsons episode lasts for 17 minutes, and Reverend Lovejoy inspects the music and states that it "sounds like rock and/or roll."
During an argument between Lisa and Bart, while discussing the relationship between laughter and the soul, Lisa quotes Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and Bart responds "I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda." Kurt M. Koenigsberger comments in Leaving Springfield "While Bart may be familiar with the canon of Chilean poetry, the joke takes its force in part from the probability that The Simpsons' viewers are not." Bart begins a prayer to God with "Are you there, God? It's me, Bart Simpson". This is a parody of the book Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret., by Judy Blume.
In its original American broadcast, "Bart Sells His Soul" finished 43rd in the ratings for the week of October 2–8, 1995, with a Nielsen rating of 8.8, equivalent to approximately 8.4 million viewing households. It was the fourth highest-rated show on the Fox network that week after The X-Files, Melrose Place and Beverly Hills, 90210.
A 2007 article in the San Mateo County Times notes that "Bart Sells His Soul" is seen as one of "the most popular episodes in 'Simpsons' history". Noel Holston of the Star Tribune highlighted the episode in the paper's "Critic's choice" section. The Intelligencer Journal described "Bart Sells His Soul" as "a particularly good episode" of The Simpsons. The Lansing State Journal highlighted the episode in the season seven DVD release, along with the conclusion of "Who Shot Mr. Burns" and "The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular". The Sunday Herald Sun called it one of the "show's most memorable episodes", as did The Courier Mail.
The Aberdeen Press & Journal described the episode as "one of the darkest episodes of the Simpsons". In their section on the episode in the book I Can't Believe It's a Bigger and Better Updated Unofficial Simpsons Guide, Warren Martyn and Adrian Wood comment: "Undoubtedly the most disturbing episode of the series, with Bart's nightmare of losing his soul — illustrated by a macabre playground where all the souls of his playmates are visible, and his is tagging along with Milhouse — more frightening than funny. ... An illustration of just how far the series could go by this point."
In 2003 the episode was listed by The Simpsons creative team as among the top five best episodes of the series, including "Last Exit to Springfield", "Cape Feare", "22 Short Films About Springfield", and "Homer at the Bat". In a 2005 interview The Simpsons creator Matt Groening commented "I don't have a single favorite. There's a bunch I really like," but cited "Bart Sells His Soul" and "Homer's Enemy" as among episodes he loves. Bart's voice actress Nancy Cartwright stated "Bart Sells His Soul" is one of her top three episodes together with "Lisa's Substitute" and "Bart the Mother".
The episode has been used in church courses about the nature of a soul in Connecticut and in the United Kingdom, and was shown by a minister in Scotland in one of his sermons. A 2005 report on religious education in secondary schools by the UK education watchdog group Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted) noted that the episode was being used as a teaching tool.
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