It’s a Wonderful Life, if you live it for others

I did not realize that Joe Carter is such a perceptive literary critic, but he is. Here is part of his comparison of George Bailey of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life with Howard Roark of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. From The Fountainhead of Bedford Falls » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog:

Howard Roark, for example, is an idealistic young architect who chooses to “struggle in obscurity rather than compromise his artistic and personal vision‚” by conforming to the needs and demands of the community. In contrast, George Bailey is an idealistic young architect-wannabe who struggles in obscurity because he has chosen to conform to the needs and demands of the community rather than fulfill his artistic and personal vision. (Howard Roark is essentially what George Bailey might have become had he left for college rather than stayed in Bedford Falls.) . . . .

What makes George Bailey one of the most inspiring, emotionally complex characters in film is that he continually chooses the needs of his family and community over his own self-interested ambitions and desires—and suffers immensely for his efforts.

Although sentimental, Capra’s movie is not a simplistic morality play. In the end, George is saved from ruin but the rest of life remains essentially the same. By December 26 he’ll wake to find that he’s still a frustrated artist scraping out a meager living in a drafty old house in a one-stoplight town. In fact, all that he has gained is recognition of the value of faith, friends, and community and that this is worth more than anything else he might achieve. Capra’s underlying message is thus radically subversive: it is by serving our fellow man, even to the point of subordinating our dreams and ambitions, that we achieve both true greatness and lasting happiness.

This theme makes Wonderful Life one of the most counter-cultural films in the history of cinema. Almost every movie about the individual in society—from Easy Rider to Happy Feet—is based on the premise that self-actualization is the primary purpose of existence. To a society that accepts radical individualism as the norm, a film about the individual subordinating his desires for the good of others sounds anti-American, if not downright communistic. Surely, the only reason the film has become a Christmas classic is because so few people grasp this core message.

Or, to put it in Cranach terms, George lives in vocation, sacrificing himself in love and service to his neighbors, which results ultimately, when he realizes it, in a fulfilled, meaningful life. Howard, in contrast, wants to be served, rather than to serve, and so represents the twisting of vocation into self-aggrandizement. He ends up destroying what he himself had made. But as Joe says, it’s the latter vision of self that we find everywhere in today’s culture.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • EconJeff

    I always know there was a deeper reason It’s a Wonderful Life is my favorite movie ever!

    While I agree that most of the movies about individual v. society end up on the side of individualism, I don’t think I buy Carter’s conclusion that few people grasp the message of It’s a Wonderful Life.

    George Bailey freely chooses to serve his neighbors–this appeals to most people. The liberal-conservative difference in this issue is generally between the choice of government or individuals making the decision of who and how to serve their neighbor. When we see individuals who choose to serve others, we like it and sometimes want to emulate them.

    Howard Roark freely chooses only to serve his own interests–this does not appeal to most people. In Rand’s philosophy, Roark freely and only serving his own interests works for the good of all. It’s the ultimate Invisible Hand–way more radical than Adam Smith envisaged, by the way. When we see individuals who behave this way, we don’t like it and don’t want to emulate them.

    Even in most movies which promote individualism, they usually only do so against a corrupt society (unfortunately usually some hypocritical Christian one). The protagonists are often driven by a motive to help others, not their pure self interest.

  • EconJeff

    I always know there was a deeper reason It’s a Wonderful Life is my favorite movie ever!

    While I agree that most of the movies about individual v. society end up on the side of individualism, I don’t think I buy Carter’s conclusion that few people grasp the message of It’s a Wonderful Life.

    George Bailey freely chooses to serve his neighbors–this appeals to most people. The liberal-conservative difference in this issue is generally between the choice of government or individuals making the decision of who and how to serve their neighbor. When we see individuals who choose to serve others, we like it and sometimes want to emulate them.

    Howard Roark freely chooses only to serve his own interests–this does not appeal to most people. In Rand’s philosophy, Roark freely and only serving his own interests works for the good of all. It’s the ultimate Invisible Hand–way more radical than Adam Smith envisaged, by the way. When we see individuals who behave this way, we don’t like it and don’t want to emulate them.

    Even in most movies which promote individualism, they usually only do so against a corrupt society (unfortunately usually some hypocritical Christian one). The protagonists are often driven by a motive to help others, not their pure self interest.

  • http://www.shempel.blogspot.com Sarah in Exile

    I became a mother precisely because I believe that relationships and family are more fulfilling than career goals. BUT the day-to-day reality of being a mom is SO HARD that “fulfilling” feels just a pipe dream. I don’t go to bed feeling fulfilled or satisfied, only tired and hoarse. While, the long term is still in my sight, I can easily see how people would want to forgo this type of life.

  • http://www.shempel.blogspot.com Sarah in Exile

    I became a mother precisely because I believe that relationships and family are more fulfilling than career goals. BUT the day-to-day reality of being a mom is SO HARD that “fulfilling” feels just a pipe dream. I don’t go to bed feeling fulfilled or satisfied, only tired and hoarse. While, the long term is still in my sight, I can easily see how people would want to forgo this type of life.

  • Tom Hering

    Capra says he made the film to “combat a modern trend toward atheism.” And it has always struck me as a film about how God is in control, and makes all things turn out for the good. Even a thing like sacrificing one’s dreams for the sake of others.

    My only problem with the film is that it presents an extreme situation, and then asks us to draw lessons for our less extreme lives – where we usually work to fulfill our dreams, but also put our dreams aside at times for the sake of others.

    Isn’t this the way God normally orders our lives? With less drama than a film requires?

  • Tom Hering

    Capra says he made the film to “combat a modern trend toward atheism.” And it has always struck me as a film about how God is in control, and makes all things turn out for the good. Even a thing like sacrificing one’s dreams for the sake of others.

    My only problem with the film is that it presents an extreme situation, and then asks us to draw lessons for our less extreme lives – where we usually work to fulfill our dreams, but also put our dreams aside at times for the sake of others.

    Isn’t this the way God normally orders our lives? With less drama than a film requires?

  • Peter Leavitt

    There has to be a middle way between Roark and Bailey. One can combine the role of creative architect with that of devoted community and family person. Roark, particularly, is a caricature of a hard hearted individual. Ayn Rand’s extreme view of individualism is that of a narrow ideologue.

    In our town a local architect designed a controversially modern library back in the seventies that over time our community for the most part has come to cherish.

  • Peter Leavitt

    There has to be a middle way between Roark and Bailey. One can combine the role of creative architect with that of devoted community and family person. Roark, particularly, is a caricature of a hard hearted individual. Ayn Rand’s extreme view of individualism is that of a narrow ideologue.

    In our town a local architect designed a controversially modern library back in the seventies that over time our community for the most part has come to cherish.

  • Arfies

    George Bailey’s life seems to bear some similarity to the six-word summary one pastor came up with for his life: “Served people, paid dearly for it.” Isn’t that our vocation?

  • Arfies

    George Bailey’s life seems to bear some similarity to the six-word summary one pastor came up with for his life: “Served people, paid dearly for it.” Isn’t that our vocation?

  • CRB

    “The Son of Man did not come to be served,
    but to give His life as a ransom for many.”
    For the Christian, this should be the
    only motivation for serving others. When
    we grumble and complain about doing so,
    what shoud we do? Repent and turn to the
    One who truly served God and man and did
    so perfectly.

  • CRB

    “The Son of Man did not come to be served,
    but to give His life as a ransom for many.”
    For the Christian, this should be the
    only motivation for serving others. When
    we grumble and complain about doing so,
    what shoud we do? Repent and turn to the
    One who truly served God and man and did
    so perfectly.

  • Tom Hering

    Arfies@#5, For some people, yes. For most of us, no. We want to be careful not to adopt the enthusiast’s notion that the only God-pleasing vocation is a religious life of self-sacrifice.

  • Tom Hering

    Arfies@#5, For some people, yes. For most of us, no. We want to be careful not to adopt the enthusiast’s notion that the only God-pleasing vocation is a religious life of self-sacrifice.

  • DonS

    Sarah @ 2: Romans 5: 3-5 is a great encouragement during times of difficulty. “And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us”. (KJV) The Lord teaches us through trials, because it is through perseverance that we develop Christ-like character. When our children were young, my wife was often exhausted and discouraged, desperately seeking conversation with “big people” and wondering whether she was accomplishing anything at all. Now that they are grown (ages 23, 20, 18, 15, 12), they “rise up and call her blessed” Prov. 31:28.

    You WILL see the fruits of your dedicated labors in years to come.

  • DonS

    Sarah @ 2: Romans 5: 3-5 is a great encouragement during times of difficulty. “And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us”. (KJV) The Lord teaches us through trials, because it is through perseverance that we develop Christ-like character. When our children were young, my wife was often exhausted and discouraged, desperately seeking conversation with “big people” and wondering whether she was accomplishing anything at all. Now that they are grown (ages 23, 20, 18, 15, 12), they “rise up and call her blessed” Prov. 31:28.

    You WILL see the fruits of your dedicated labors in years to come.

  • http://somewebsite.somedomain.com Christian Soldier

    There is a _Virtue in Selfishness_ another of Rand’s books…one must remember that she came from a background of COMMUNEism and thus- her view is one of entrepreneurship and using ones’ gifts-esp. artistic gifts….
    Christians oft times give up their ‘ambitions’ to use their God given gifts because of the desire to please others…I wonder if it pleases our Father?
    Understand-I homeschooled my off-spring to o a high ranking ‘Academy’…so-I did put my gifts off for a time..
    am I sorry – NO –would I have been better off financially-Yes….
    C-CS

  • http://somewebsite.somedomain.com Christian Soldier

    There is a _Virtue in Selfishness_ another of Rand’s books…one must remember that she came from a background of COMMUNEism and thus- her view is one of entrepreneurship and using ones’ gifts-esp. artistic gifts….
    Christians oft times give up their ‘ambitions’ to use their God given gifts because of the desire to please others…I wonder if it pleases our Father?
    Understand-I homeschooled my off-spring to o a high ranking ‘Academy’…so-I did put my gifts off for a time..
    am I sorry – NO –would I have been better off financially-Yes….
    C-CS

  • Josie

    Sarah, I know exactly what you mean. I do a lot of single parenting due to my husband’s job, and it can be exhausting and not always the most immediately gratifying or rewarding job in the world : ) Our kids are 10 years apart and doing the whole baby thing over again has been a bit tiring, but we are so grateful at the same time for this little baby we’ve been blessed with. Its such a fine line between thankfulness and joy; and tiredness and guilt over not doing enough and being perfect as a mom. This too, is why Wonderful Life has always struck a chord with me- it shows all of that so perfectly in the George B. character.

  • Josie

    Sarah, I know exactly what you mean. I do a lot of single parenting due to my husband’s job, and it can be exhausting and not always the most immediately gratifying or rewarding job in the world : ) Our kids are 10 years apart and doing the whole baby thing over again has been a bit tiring, but we are so grateful at the same time for this little baby we’ve been blessed with. Its such a fine line between thankfulness and joy; and tiredness and guilt over not doing enough and being perfect as a mom. This too, is why Wonderful Life has always struck a chord with me- it shows all of that so perfectly in the George B. character.

  • G

    It is a nice movie, but how many people out there believe we become angels after we die because of it?

  • G

    It is a nice movie, but how many people out there believe we become angels after we die because of it?

  • Peter Leavitt

    Good question G, though chances are none of us will become angels, probably the George Bailey;s will receive their just reward.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Good question G, though chances are none of us will become angels, probably the George Bailey;s will receive their just reward.

  • DonS

    We just watched the movie again tonight. An annual holiday tradition in our home.

    Actually, there is no implication in the movie that Clarence or any other depicted angel were ever human.

  • DonS

    We just watched the movie again tonight. An annual holiday tradition in our home.

    Actually, there is no implication in the movie that Clarence or any other depicted angel were ever human.

  • Leslie

    Actually, Clarence at the beginning is called “the clockmaker” indicating that was his vocation before he died. And after he jumps in the icy water and is putting his clothes back on, he refers to his underwear as those that his wife gave him and that he died in them.

  • Leslie

    Actually, Clarence at the beginning is called “the clockmaker” indicating that was his vocation before he died. And after he jumps in the icy water and is putting his clothes back on, he refers to his underwear as those that his wife gave him and that he died in them.


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