In “It’s a Not-So-Wonderful Life,” Dennis Hull argues that “The life of George Bailey is defined by unmitigated self-sacrifice…it was not, and never will be a wonderful life.” It is certainly true that George Bailey lived a life of self-sacrifice. But Hull’s conclusion—that George did not, in fact, have a wonderful life—is suspect.
Hull’s interpretation suffers from the law of the instrument. This is the idea expressed in the common adage: “If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.”
Hull’s hammer is an absolute fixation on the role of self-sacrifice in the film. To be sure, self-sacrifice is a major theme of It’s a Wonderful Life. But it is not the only theme. By focusing his entire analysis solely on George’s belief in, and practice of, self-sacrifice, Hull misinterprets key scenes, which in turn leads him to erroneous conclusions.
George’s Suicidal Thoughts
Hull’s attention to the role of self-sacrifice causes him to overlook the obvious source of George’s angst. He writes, “George becomes depressed because of this glaring inconsistency between the way he actually lives his life (self-sacrifice) and the way he wants to live his life (self-actualization).”
This is an interesting theory in the abstract, but it is completely unsubstantiated in the film itself. George did not become depressed because of a metaphysical contradiction in how he lived his life. He became depressed and nearly killed himself because Potter stole $8,000, the equivalent of over $130,000 today, from the Building and Loan. George was directly driven to despair because he faced imminent ignominy and imprisonment.
The film is explicit on this point. On the day Harry is awarded the Medal of Honor, George was a happy man, celebrating the news in the street with his friends. His demeanor changed only when Uncle Billy informed him that the $8,000 was missing. George grew increasingly agitated over the course of the day while searching for the money and realizing the implications of his situation.
Perhaps one could say the $8,000 is the straw that broke the camel’s back, that George was depressed the whole time and just needed a trigger for it to show. Hull offers some evidence for this, noting that after Potter offers George a job, George goes home with his old plans “for building airfields and bridges and skyscrapers” echoing in his head. There is no denying that George struggled with the fact that he was unable to pursue his dreams, instead staying in Bedford Falls and consistently sacrificing to help his friends and family.
Hull is therefore right to note that “George is increasingly haunted by the fact that he may never realize his many repressed ambitions.” But he is wrong to assume that this is the same thing as the depression that makes George suicidal. It is better understood as George working through one of the fundamental facts of human life—that you can’t always get what you want. Like all people, George valued a variety of things and had a range of ambitions. He wanted to go to college, but he also demonstrably cared about the Building and Loan staying in business. He wanted to see the world, but he also loved Mary Hatch and chose to make a life with her. He, like everyone else, had to sacrifice some dreams and goals in order to realize others.
If time permitted, it is easy to imagine Clarence showing us a third reality—one where George does exist but chose to leave Bedford Falls and pursue his dreams. In this world, George would have made a different set of tradeoffs. He might be well-traveled and well-educated, but he would be haunted by the fact that he never married the girl of his dreams. He could be a rich and successful architect, but also regret being unable to help his family and friends because he was so far from home.
As Thomas Sowell said, “there are no solutions, there are only trade-offs.” Throughout the movie, George is shown grappling with the tradeoffs he made regarding his competing hopes and desires. But he is only suicidally depressed once, and it is directly caused by the $8,000.
George explicitly says that the missing money is what caused his suicidal ideation, telling Clarence, “Only one way you can help me. You don't happen to have eight thousand bucks on you?” In short, Hull’s resolute focus on self-sacrifice blinds him to the casual role the $8,000 played in nearly driving George to suicide.
An over-fixation on the issue of self-sacrifice also leads Hull to conflate George the man with the effects of George’s sacrifices.
He argues that “the evils of Pottersville are direct consequences of George’s own lack of sacrifice.” The problem with this claim is that Pottersville is not a result of George’s lack of sacrifice; it is a result of a lack of George altogether.
Hull would argue that these are the same thing because, by not existing, George was unable to sacrifice for his neighbors. However, there is good reason to believe there is a meaningful difference between a lack of sacrifice and a lack of George, and that this difference carries important implications for how we understand the film.
In order for a lack of sacrifice and a lack of George to be the same thing, all of the impact George had on Bedford Falls would have to be attributable, either directly or indirectly, to a purposeful sacrifice made by George. We know they are not the same thing because some of the differences between Bedford Falls and Pottersville are not connected to any self-sacrificial behavior.
Take for example the way George helped Mr. Gower. As a boy, George prevented Gower from going to prison and subsequently becoming a pauper by not delivering a prescription that had mistakenly been filled with poison. Everyone, Hull included, would agree George did the right thing by not delivering the pills. Yet it strains credulity to say that this was a sacrificial act on George’s part. Simply through being alive and present at the time of Gower’s mistake, George was able to make a positive impact on the lives of Gower and the individuals who would have taken the poison. In other words, it was George’s existence, not his sacrifice, that produced the good outcome.
Nick the bartender is a similar case. As far as we know, George never sacrificed anything for Nick’s benefit. In the world of Bedford Falls, Nick is a friendly neighborhood bartender, the kind of guy decent people would enjoy being around. But in Pottersville, he is a total jerk. As viewers, we are clearly intended to like the Bedford Falls Nick more than his Pottersville alter ego. The only difference is that in one world, George exists as a person in Nick’s life, and in the other, he does not. The only way to tie this change to a matter of sacrifice is to generalize the effects of George’s sacrificial actions to the point that the word “sacrifice” loses all meaning.
To be clear, some of the differences between Bedford Falls and Pottersville can directly be traced back to George’s tendency to sacrifice. One could say that George sacrificed hearing in one ear in order to save his brother Harry’s life. We can plausibly say that Harry’s childhood death in Pottersville is a direct result of George’s lack of sacrifice. (This does not mean George was wrong to save Harry, of course, just that doing so was a sacrificial act.)
What we see, then, is that the effect of George’s existence is broader than just the effect of George’s sacrifice. In other words, George’s sacrifices are incidental to the broader impact of his existence as an individual human being.
Confusing Clarence’s Words
Because he confuses a lack of sacrifice with a lack of George, Hull misunderstands what Clarence means when he says, “You see George, you really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it all away?”
Hull interprets the meaning of Clarence’s words as being directly about sacrifice, writing, “Clarence forces George to acknowledge that the evils of Pottersville are direct consequences of George’s own lack of sacrifice...”
When Clarence shows George the horrors of Pottersville, he demonstrates the effect of a lack of George. While it is true that none of George’s sacrificial acts can occur in a world where he does not exist, it is nonetheless the case that his lack of existence has a greater impact than simply removing the effects of his sacrifice from the world.
Hull argues that Clarence’s message is: “George should be happy for the simple reason that he made so many other people happy.” This is only half right. When Clarence tells George, “you really had a wonderful life,” he means exactly what he says—George Bailey, the individual, had a wonderful life.
George had relationships with his friends, family, and community. These relationships were an important part of George’s individual identity, in the same way that his internal ambitions were. By showing George the horrors of Pottersville, he was able to show how great of an impact his mere existence had on those around him, but he also showed George the effect his absence would have had on George’s internal sense of self.
Put bluntly, in the Pottersville universe, when Harry dies in the freezing water, a part of George dies with him. When Mary Hatch grows up to be a lonely old maid, all the love and joy George derived from his relationship with his wife is removed from his very being. When George sees his friend Mr. Gower living as a sad bum in the street, a piece of George is left to freeze out in the cold, too.
In other words, Clarence isn’t telling George to find his happiness in the wellbeing of others, he is teaching George to appreciate what he already has within him. Fundamentally, Clarence’s words are a celebration of life, which is why he shows George “what a mistake it would be to throw it all away.”
Hull does not see it this way because he is committed to viewing the film solely through the prism of self-sacrifice. Rather than understanding Clarence’s words as a celebration of the richness, depth, and complexity of human life, he claims they are an invitation for George to acknowledge three “truths” to see his life as wonderful. These truths are:
1. “One has an automatic, blanket moral obligation to look out for their entire community, to the extent of one’s ability – even at great personal cost.”
2. “One assumes moral responsibility for the consequences, both direct and indirect, of not sacrificing for the good of others.”
3. “Happiness is found not in the achievement of one’s personal ambitions, but in the happiness of the people who benefitted from your sacrifice.”
None of these statements are entailed by Clarence’s words, and George need not accept them to see his life as wonderful.
On the first point, the film certainly endorses the idea that looking out for one’s community to the extent of one’s ability is a good thing. And indeed, there is nothing nefarious about the idea that we should be kind, helping, and charitable to those around us. Nor is there anything wrong with celebrating those who go above and beyond to help their community.
However, by showing how George’s mere existence positively impacted his community, the film does not imply that there is “an automatic, blanket moral obligation” to do anything. That George feels a greater-than-average duty to help those around him is not an indication that one needs to “look out for their entire community…at great personal cost” in order to be happy. Hull simply inserts this extreme idea into the film without offering any concrete evidence for this message. Given his ability to pull specific evidence for his other claims, the absence of justification is notable.
The second alleged truth is similarly erroneous. At no point in the Pottersville reality does Clarence suggest George “assumes moral responsibility for the consequences” of not existing.
It is Hull, not Capra, who inserts the idea of an extreme understanding of moral culpability into the scene. He writes, “Clarence reinforces the idea that the misfortune of others, especially of those in one’s immediate vicinity, imposes a mandate of action on those capable of lending a hand.” Leaving aside the point that helping those in need is morally praiseworthy, Hull offers no explanation or elaboration as to exactly how Clarence supposedly pushes a radical doctrine of finding happiness in sacrifice.
As we have already seen, Clarence was concerned with the effects of a lack of George, not a lack of sacrifice. He demonstrated how part of George’s personal identity and internal well-being was connected to his relationships with those around him.
If Clarence was actually sending the message Hull claims, he would have said something like, “You had a duty to be born and prevent all this from happening.” He does not say this, of course, because he does not mean it. When he tells George, “You really had a wonderful life,” he means exactly what he says. George Bailey, an individual man, had a great life because his life was, in fact, good.
Hull’s third supposed “truth” is more textually defensible than the first two, but it is nonetheless a misinterpretation of what is happening in the heart and mind of George Bailey.
It is indeed true that Clarence helps George see that his existence made others happy. But it is a mistake to assume the movie’s message is that “happiness is found not in the achievement of one’s personal ambitions.” After all, many characters who pursue their own ambitions are happy. Martini, for instance, had a dream shared by countless Americans—to own a home. When he is able to do this (thanks to George), he is clearly a happy man.
The point of the film, then, is simply to show that happiness can be achieved in many different ways. True, George did not live out his childhood dreams. But he did develop strong bonds with his wife, family, friends, and community. Clarence shows him that these bonds, in and of themselves, can provide a great deal of meaning and happiness to George.
It’s About So Much More
There are other issues with Hull’s interpretation of It’s a Wonderful Life, but they are all rooted in the same foundational problem: he misses the forest for the trees. Capra’s 1946 masterpiece is a celebration of life. It recognizes the complicated, contingent nature of the human condition, and offers a nuanced understanding of the relationship between the individual and the community.
Relationships are important. They are as much a part of us as our internal hopes and dreams. Thanks to Clarence, we come to understand that “no man is a failure who has friends.” In the context of George’s life, we see that “friends” means all of the wonderful relationships George has—a loving wife, a caring family, true friends, and an important place in his community.
Hull misses this because he is singularly fixated on the role of self-sacrifice. Yes, George Bailey lived a life of self-sacrifice. But he also had a wonderful life. In this way, It’s a Wonderful Life depicts a harmonious relationship between the virtues of the individual and the importance of the community. Until another film can do it better, Capra’s classic will remain a Christmas season fixture for many years to come.