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.