It’s a Wonderful Life opens with an earnest prayer, whispered up to the heavens on a quiet Christmas Eve from the small town of Bedford Falls, New York, mere moments before a well-loved community hero contemplates suicide.
“I owe everything to George Bailey,” says one faceless voice.
Then another: “He never thinks about himself, God, that’s why he’s in trouble.”
The selfless life of George Bailey is well known to the millions of American families who have made this 1946 film an annual Christmas tradition. Many rank it as the most inspirational movie of all time.
But beneath the surface of George’s bright personality, beneath his friendliness and casual charm, we see a man in deep distress. We experience the agony of a young dreamer who is compelled to sacrifice his lofty ambitions, relegating himself to a small-town life he has always loathed. We empathize with George’s moral struggles, torn between serving his community and pursuing the life he had always intended to live. We send up our own prayers for George’s wellbeing when he finds himself perched at the edge of that bridge, forlorn and despondent, his soul weighed down by an albatross of responsibility for dozens of lives.
George Bailey never left Bedford Falls. He never went to college, never had a honeymoon, and never had more than a few dollars to his name. The life of George Bailey is defined by unmitigated self-sacrifice, to any and all who require his assistance. And it was not, and never will be a wonderful life.
A Man of Intention
After four years working full time for his father, Peter, at the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan, George is dead set against the idea of taking over the family business. When Peter proposes this idea at family dinner, he is visibly upset at George’s insistence that he “couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office … I’d go crazy.”
No, George has bigger plans. Since he was a bright-eyed boy of 12, showing off his National Geographic magazine to the girls at Mr. Gower’s drugstore, George talks constantly about his dream of leaving Bedford Falls and seeing the world. By the time he is ready for college, George has saved enough money for a month-long trip to Europe (“Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum!”). He has also laid out plans to earn his degree and “build things, design new buildings, plan modern cities.” George is eager to embark on the challenging journey of self-actualization and success.
A smart young man with above-average potential, George finds tremendous value in a set of admirable life goals. His passion for life and its wealth of potential is palpable; the viewer is compelled to wish for his success. “I know what I’m gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and next year and the year after that!” he proclaims to his future wife, Mary Hatch. “I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world!”
Conflict of Interest
But above all else, George Bailey’s decisions are guided by his love for the Building and Loan. It is his White Whale, the one thing George refuses to abandon, even at the cost of every one of his personal hopes and dreams. This contradictory mindset is rooted in George’s firm underlying belief in the moral principle of self-sacrifice – of taking on personal responsibility for the welfare of others.
“It was [Peter’s] faith and devotion that are responsible for this organization,” remarks a Building and Loan board member shortly after Peter's stroke. Henry Potter, a wealthy banker and shareholder of the Bailey company, agreed: “I’ll go further than that – I’ll say that to the public, Peter Bailey was the Building and Loan!”
Potter may be a scurvy little spider, as George would say, but in this he is undoubtedly correct. Peter’s faithful commitment to helping others leads him to make important business decisions on the basis of a person’s character, rather than on their demonstrated ability to repay a loan. In a scene from George’s childhood, we see Peter begging for another 30 days to repay a substantial loan from Potter, while simultaneously refusing to foreclose on any of his customers who put him in that situation by not paying rent (“I can’t do that, these families have children!”). In return for decades of excessive leniency, Peter could not save a dime for George or Harry’s college, forcing George to stick around for four years at the Building and Loan to “hoard pennies like a miser” for tuition.
Despite his revulsion at the thought of personally running the family business, it is clear that George admires his father for a life spent in the service of the people of Bedford Falls. Even as he acknowledges that his father was not a good businessman, George elevates the moral righteousness of his willingness to finance high-risk, low-yield loans to the poor. During the board meeting after Peter’s stroke, George berates Potter for criticizing his late father: “He did it to help a few people to get out of your slums,” and in 25 years “he never once thought of himself!” Even at the age of 12, George speaks highly of his father as the “biggest man in town.” And on the night he believed to be his last in Bedford Falls, George tells his father something he thought he’d never say out loud: “Pop, I think you’re a great guy.”
However, in striking contrast to his admiration of the Building and Loan, George cannot justify the value or purpose of the things he really wants to do with his life. On two separate occasions, George reels off a list of the wonderful things he’d like to see and do, only to be confronted immediately with a question he cannot answer: “Then what?”
First he tells Mary he’d give her anything she wants – he’d lasso the very moon. Then what? “Well, then you could swallow it and it’d all dissolve, see? And the moonbeams would shoot out of your fingers and your toes, and the ends of your hair.” Later, George tells the cab driver about their honeymoon trip in Italy and New York, their plans to have the “oldest champagne, the richest caviar.” Then what? Mary answers the question instead – “After that, who cares!”
Although he views his father’s zealous self-sacrifice as an end in itself, George sees no higher meaning in the achievement of personal goals – he has no idea what comes next. He cannot even identify the priceless value of the bond he would soon share with his wife after weeks of thrilling adventure in Europe and New York, or how that experience would open their eyes to a brand new perspective they could never discover while trapped in the confines of their hometown.
By failing to elucidate any of the values he would gain by achieving his professional, academic, and travel ambitions, George is unable to prioritize his own life over the lives of others. And so, one by one, George abandons his goals to save the Building and Loan.
Death of a Dreamer
After his father’s stroke, George gives up his trip to Europe to “help straighten things out” at the family business.
Hours before his train to college is scheduled to depart, the board agrees not to dissolve the Building and Loan, so long as George sticks around to run it. George gives all of his college money to his younger brother, Harry, making him swear he would come back and run the company in four years. (He never did.)
Minutes after getting married, George hands out all of his honeymoon cash – about $30,000 in today’s dollars – to a mob of his own shareholders during a bank run. This ensured that Potter, who had offered 50 cents on the dollar for every share, could not take over the company. (He kept trying.)
George turns down “the chance of a lifetime” from his childhood friend, Sam Wainwright, who offers him a chance to get in “on the ground floor” of a business venture making plastics from soybeans. Ironically, this idea was inspired by George himself, yet it was Sam who would go on to become fabulously wealthy. George would not even join Sam and his wife on a drive to Florida – he had too much work at the Building and Loan.
He denies Potter’s offer of a job to “manage [his] affairs, run [his] properties” that would have paid the equivalent of $300,000 a year.
“A Warped, Frustrated Young Man”
Before he offers George a job, Potter gives a disheartening description of the misery George has wrought upon his life.
“You are an intelligent, smart, ambitious young man who hates his job, who hates the Building and Loan almost as much as I do. A young man who’s been dying to get out on his own since the day he was born, a young man – the smartest one of the crowd, mind you – a young man who has to sit by and watch his friends go places because he’s trapped …. Do I paint a correct picture or do I exaggerate?”
We know this was no exaggeration, for George has nothing to say. He has indeed sat idly on the sidelines, trapped at the Building and Loan as his friends go off to do the things he had always dreamed – school, Europe, a comfortable lifestyle, successful business ventures. His younger brother Harry gets to go to college using George’s hard-earned tuition money, take a well-paying job he enjoys, see the world as a Navy pilot, and do important things – big enough to earn a Congressional Medal of Honor.
Over the years, George is increasingly haunted by the fact that he may never realize his many repressed ambitions. When he heads home to his wife after meeting with Potter, his own words echo in his head – of his plans for building airfields and bridges and skyscrapers a hundred stories high.
Does George Bailey truly value the selfless work he puts in at the Building and Loan, day after day, long night after long night? Penniless and hopelessly stranded in Bedford Falls, George knows he has voluntarily offered up his life. He traded the development of his intellect and realization of his potential in the big city for the wants, needs, and desires of others. He has stayed true to his father’s moral ideals in practice – yet his other half craves the chance to live life as he sees fit.
The Shackles of Self-Sacrifice
This is a film about a man who lives in full submission to altruistic ideals, while simultaneously yearning for the fulfillment of his chosen values. All of George’s stated goals are, at some point, in direct conflict with his prioritization of the wellbeing of others.
No man can be happy under the dual strain of these two contradictory moral standards. 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). He wants to have his cake and eat it too, yet cannot grasp the fundamental incompatibility of these two divergent approaches.
George’s moral compass guides him toward sporadic, circumstantial acts of altruism, wherever and whenever another person might have need of him. Some residents of Bedford Falls outright exploit him, such as the man who demands payment of his full $242 during the bank run. Even though George pleads that he has only $2,000 of honeymoon savings and points out that the bank would open again in just one week, the man does not relent, and George dutifully gives him exactly what he had asked. Violet Bick manipulates George in a different way, leveraging her pretty features; whether or not this influenced George’s decisions, he insists that she take his own money – without consulting his wife – to finance a new life in New York City.
George is so fully committed to emulating his father’s ethic of self-sacrifice that his guardian angel, Clarence, knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that if he were drowning, George would try to save him – even drunk and in his moment of greatest despair, on the verge of taking his own life.
The angel takes George to Pottersville, an imagined version of Bedford Falls in which George Bailey had never been born. The town is a stinking mess of vice, anger and discontent. Clarence forces George to acknowledge that the evils of Pottersville are direct consequences of George’s own lack of sacrifice, thus making George personally and morally responsible for all of the suffering that he could have prevented.
According to the angel, by not being around, George is responsible for each of the following:
- His wife becoming a lonely spinster.
- Mr. Gower, the drugstore owner, going to jail for 20 years. (George didn’t stop him from putting poison in a prescription.)
- Mr. Gower living a miserable life as a homeless panhandler. (George is also indirectly responsible for his misfortunes after 20 years in jail.)
- Uncle Billy going to the insane asylum. (George didn't take over Building and Loan, so Billy lost his job.)
- Harry drowning at the age of 9. (George didn’t pull him out of the frigid water.)
- Hundreds of U.S. soldiers dying aboard a WWII transport. (“Harry wasn’t there to save them, because you weren’t there to save Harry!”)
- Violet Bick becoming a prostitute. (George didn't give her his own money to move to New York.)
Clarence summarizes: “You see George, you really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it all away?"
Essentially, the angel needs George to acknowledge three "truths" before he can see his life as wonderful.
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.
George’s many years at the Building and Loan is a testimony to the implications of this axiom. It is a job he never wanted and could never enjoy, but he offers thousands of his own cash – and his life insurance policy – to keep the institution solvent.
2. One assumes moral responsibility for the consequences, both direct and indirect, of not sacrificing for the good of others.
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. The ability to prevent some number of people from suffering implies some degree of subsequent responsibility for the consequences of choosing not to help. Thus, not only should George feel guilt for the death of his brother (direct consequence), but also for every soldier that Harry would have saved (indirect consequence).
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.
George still pines for the life he could have had. Rather than focus on himself, or on the miserable realities of the sacrificial life he never wanted in Bedford Falls, George should be happy for the simple reason that he made so many other people happy. This is what Clarence is getting at when he tells George, “You really had a wonderful life.”
A Happy Ending?
At first glance, the “happy ending” may imply that George has successfully adopted all three of Clarence’s lessons. He leaps with joy upon seeing the sign “Bedford Falls” back in its rightful place. He yells “Merry Christmas” through Potter’s window. He is downright giddy to see his wife and children again in that drafty, detestable house.
Surrounded by family, friends, and half the town of Bedford Falls, George is showered in loose change and dollar bills, an outpouring of goodwill that would save him from going to prison for the misplacement of $8,000. This jubilant final scene is portrayed as the ultimate demonstration of Clarence’s third “lesson” – that true happiness can be found in the joy a person brings about in the lives of others – and that “no man is a failure who has friends.”
Yet George does not speak a word as the townspeople sing in celebration; he is barely even smiling. As he stands with his family in front of a hundred people, all of whom had benefited in some way as he sacrificed his whole life for their sake, George Bailey is noticeably weary. It’s almost as if he is physically burdened by the weight of his obligations, as if he knows that the pile of bills on the counter is just a band-aid, a stopgap to tide him over to the next, inevitable spot of trouble. Perhaps George is aware, deep down, that the Building and Loan is still built on a fundamentally unprofitable business model – and an unsustainable ethos of sacrifice.
The film ends with an open question. Has George truly embraced a new, positive outlook on his miserable life? Can he finally let go of everything he had once hoped his life would become? Is the happiness of so many people sufficient for George to finally think of his life as wonderful?
An Alternative Approach
The only time we see George Bailey as a truly happy man is at the beginning of the film, when his aspirations are alive and well. It is his resolute belief in the morality of self-sacrifice – instilled by his father, embodied in the Building and Loan, and reinforced by Clarence – that undermines the quality of George’s life.
As it stands, George’s experience proves the extreme difficulty of achieving happiness within the stringent constraints of self-sacrifice. It is not enough to give away your whole life for the sake of others. Nor is it enough to embrace full responsibility for alleviating their suffering. A life in service of others requires you to center your life’s very purpose, and happiness, around the wants and needs of others – a total rejection of the self.
As George demonstrates, the most challenging requirement of such an existence is the mental fortitude to find your happiness in the happiness of others. The abject misery of consistently prioritizing other people, friends and strangers alike, can drive even the most cheerful of men into anger and depression. But not many will have a guardian angel to talk them off the ledge.
Contrary to the conclusion of It’s a Wonderful Life, one may indeed experience profound joy and satisfaction from accomplishing great things with a great mind. Simply choosing to follow your chosen life goals is not morally reprehensible, in and of itself. In fact, it is quite possible that George could have “helped” a great many more people if he had gone to college and planned modern cities. Harry and Sam, for example, placed their own ambition before the needs of Bedford Falls, but each contributed to the saving of countless lives in WWII – Sam by making plastic hoods for planes at his factory, and Harry by flying a plane of his own in the Pacific.
Whatever the good life might entail, the miserable, not-so-wonderful life of George Bailey is one we should all strive to avoid.