It’s almost always useful to ask obvious questions. Questions whose answers appear to be immediately obvious. I suppose it’s useful because stating the obvious needs to be done to get us through the front door of a story and on into its interior. If we can’t make our way through the front door, we can’t begin to appreciate the internal architecture, the furnishings, the interior decoration. We can’t meet the inhabitants and get to know them.
So let’s ask an obvious question about It’s a Wonderful Life: Why is George Bailey frustrated? Isn’t it because of his capacity for love? Isn’t it because he loves too well to suit the ambitious and self-interested impulse in him? Isn’t he really more frustrated by the affections of his heart and the wisdom of his heart and the decisions of his heart than he is by his nemesis, Mr. Potter, or by the incompetence of Uncle Billy, or by the apparent passivity and mediocrity of his father?
Let me remind you of George’s initial motivation and a bit of the plot. George wants to leave his home town, Bedford Falls, since the time he is “elected to membership in the National Geographic Society” and probably before. As a boy behind a soda fountain, he wants to become a famous explorer. As a young man, he wants to travel widely and become an architect who will design great bridges and buildings to constitute and adorn the world’s great cities. He wants to become sophisticated, rich, and famous. He definitely does not want to work with his father in his family business, at the “two-bit” Bailey Building and Loan Association.
But George’s love for his brother, Harry, his love for his father and his father’s memory, his love for his community, and then his love for Mary Hatch keep him from going to college and realizing his ambitions. He sends his brother, Harry, to college, at the same time filling in at the Building and Loan for his dead father so that the working poor and the marginally middle class of Bedford Falls can afford homes of their own, rather than having to pay Mr. Potter’s outrageous rents.
So George’s American Dream of riches and fame is consistently frustrated by the wisdom and the commitments of his heart. As his hair begins to gray and he is barely able to afford his growing family, Mr. Potter offers him compensation that is almost 10 times his current salary at the Building and Loan, if only he will sell out to him. The American Dream side of George leaps at the opportunity Potter offers, and he accepts. But then as he puffs away on one of Potter’s expensive cigars, his heart realizes what a betrayal this would be to the life he has chosen for himself and the values he lives by, and he rejects the offer.
Finally, on a Christmas Eve day, the present of the story, which has mostly been told to us in flashbacks, Uncle Billy misplaces a substantial sum of the Building and Loan’s money, which actually ends up in the hands of Mr. Potter, who keeps it and tells no one. This threatens to result in jail for someone, and George imagines this will have to be him. He can’t figure out how he can go to jail without his family being destroyed. So he goes through a crisis in which he considers suicide, because he wants to restore the money, without harming his Uncle Billy. He feels so overwhelmed by his lost opportunity—his frustrated dreams of success—that he wishes that he had never been born. An angel—Clarence Odbody—who appears to have the intellect of a bag of rocks but who turns out to have considerably more wisdom than any other character in the story, shows George what life in Bedford Falls would have been like without him.
At first, George cannot believe what Clarence shows him. He’s convinced that the world would have been better off without him and that his life has been a waste. Further, he’s convinced that the world Clarence shows him is some kind of mental trick. But no, after he becomes convinced that the might-have-been world that Clarence shows him of joylessness and poverty and greed and sin and viciousness might not be a mental trick—it might actually be a kind of parallel world in which he really never did exist—he prays to be returned to his family. He then is miraculously restored to the world he helped create—the world into which he actually was born. He is returned home by one of the town policemen, and he is reduced to tears of joy and humiliation at his reunion with his family.
The people of the community, after hearing about George’s financial trouble, have apparently all pitched in and more-than-replace the missing funds. The movie ends with George’s restoration to his family, his community, and himself, in a schmaltzy Frank Capra Christmas Eve party full of singing, silliness, and celebration.
Throughout, then, we see George at war with himself. His heart leads him into commitments that his mind tells him are unwise. His mind—his self-interest, which is his ambition—continues to chafe against his heart until the crisis on Christmas Eve, when it is once again put down. It is put down by reality. The reality that George’s heart has helped to create as he has made choice after choice throughout his life. It is a reality that is shown to be much finer—much more fortunate and more beneficial and more happy and more inspiring and more beautiful and more meaningful and more loving—than the alternative reality that Clarence Odbody shows him. The alternative reality in which George’s heart and its decisions play no role and in which Potter, the greedy, loveless, voracious businessman who grasps to own and control all of Bedford Falls, dominates without any contest from George.
George—through his sacrifice to his community, his love of his neighbors—has helped to strengthen the character of his friends and neighbors. They have seen how George has sacrificed for them. Now they sacrifice for him, by contributing more money than they can really afford to bail him out of his trouble. Please notice that they really don’t care what the nature of his trouble is. They will help him no matter what.
What if his community had not come forth and rescued George? Well, the world that he had helped to create would have been the same in its essentials, but it would not have been fully realized. It would not have fully become itself. But George’s decision to pray for restoration to his real and actual life would not have changed. And his joy at his restoration to his family and friends would not have changed.
The party ending is important, but it isn’t essential to George’s life. George’s struggle is what the story is about, the shaping of his character and the shaping of the world that he inhabits. We want to see the sacrifice of the community in the end, though, because it is just and right and beautiful, in a schmaltzy sort of way. It is the realization of the good of George’s temptations and his sacrifice.
And it puts to rights the Christmas story. The story of Jesus. We want to know that it is possible to get a different outcome these days—even in America—to a life of sacrifice. We want to know that a life lived through love and forgiveness does not have to end in defeat. That it can change us this time. We want to know that we can fully participate this time around in the love and the beauty of such a life, rather than be the cause of its destruction.
And so we identify more than we may care to admit with Uncle Billy and Bert and Ernie and Cousin Eustace and Cousin Tilly and Mr. Martini and Nick and Sam Wainwright and Ruth Dakin Bailey and Carter and Mr. Gower and Violet and the others. We want ourselves this time to fully participate in the possibility of salvation. In the possibility offered us by someone who only knows how to put one foot in front of the other on his way to a destination that only his heart knows. A destination that is right here. Right here in this place. Wherever and whenever this happens to be.