Advent: Bailey, Roarke and Us

One of the best things about this season is that, invariably, someone writes about It’s A Wonderful Life, and muses on the complex, sometimes dark character of George Bailey.

Portrayed so perfectly by the perpetually likable James Stewart, it is easy to miss the fact that George Bailey is not a simple and good-natured cornpone from upstate New York; he is a man whose heart and faith are essential to him, because they balance out a real bitterness that shows itself in little ways. A man who has had to cast aside every dream in order to do “the right thing,” Bailey is -thanks to an old injury- denied even dubious adventure of soldiering during World War II. Watch him spit in disdain at himself and his situation, after he has responsibly handled a blackout drill in his neighborhood. When the big man from the small town comes beeping by in a slick, shiny car and a shinier woman, see George Bailey’s lip curl, not because his wife is wearing a baseball cap and sitting in his old clunker, but because she is so clearly content with the cap, and the clunker, and with comfortable, sacrificing, trapped old George, who always wanted so much more. He adores his wife; he wants what she wants, but why doesn’t she want more?

He kicks the car door.

George Bailey, who is a very good man living by what our post-Christian era might consider “quaint” morals, is deeply distressed. He loves much. He hates, too. Where there is great goodness, there is always equal potential for badness and mayhem, and it is a testament to James Stewart’s talent, and Frank Capra’s direction, that we barely notice Bailey’s flaws for all his good points. The truth is, though, that Bailey’s flaws are what define him; they challenge him, constantly, to transcend his own instincts. Subconsciously, I think we see the man in full -good and bad, light and dark- and recognize ourselves in him.

No wonder we want to sympathize; no wonder we want him to win. He is the personification of all of our demons and better angels.

He is also, as Joe Carter writes in a very smart piece, The Fountainhead of Bedford Falls:

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.)

While both represent the artistic, ambitious, talented individual who is surrounded by stifling mediocrity, each character’s story unfolds in dramatically different fashion. Rand portrays Roark as a demigod-like hero who refuses to subordinate his self-centered ego for the wishes of society. Capra, in stark contrast, portrays Bailey as an amiable but flawed man who becomes a hero precisely because he has chosen to subordinate his self-centered ego to society.

Both men suffer, but one has suffered with the whole world, and the other has suffered only for himself. You’ll want to read the whole piece. I concur with Carter’s conclusions.

Read also Ed Morrissey’s
Insightful musings on It’s a Wonderful Life

When one considers George Bailey, and our own mended and rebroken, hopeful hearts, how can the first reading from Mass today not lift us, keep us airborne:

Thus says the Lord God: But a very little while, and Lebana shall be changed into an orchard, and the orchard be regarded as a forest! On that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book; and out of gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see. The lowly will ever find joy in the Lord, and the poor rejoice in the Holy One of Israel . . .

And then to meditate on this:

The reason why we must hope in God is chiefly the fact that we belong to him, as effect belongs to cause. God does nothing in vain, but always acts for a definite purpose . . .
— St. Thomas Aquinas


I fancy that hope is the last gift given to man, and the only gift not given to youth. Youth is pre-eminently the period in which a man can be lyric, fanatical, poetic; but youth is the period in which a man can be hopeless. The end of every episode is the end of the world. But the power of hoping through everything, the knowledge that the soul survives its adventures, that great inspiration comes to the middle-aged: God has kept that good wine until now.”
— G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens, Last of the Great Men (Source)

It took George Bailey a while to understand that. And the rest of us, too, probably.

George Bailey and The Pursuit of “Happyness”
The Psalm of the Common Man

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Sparki

    Excellent insight about one of my favorite movies of the season.

    Side note about Capra’s (and maybe Donna Reed’s) genius. In this same scene, when Sam Wainwright is ribbing George Bailey about rejecting the offer to go into plastics (which George did as he embraced Mary and realized his love for her), Mary’s hand touches her abdomen, because she knows (or thinks) she’s pregnant, but she hasn’t told George yet. It’s a lovely little touch that adds depth to Mary’s character.

  • Sparki
  • Mimsy

    What a very nice way to start my day as we wind through the first week of Advent. I will send this to College Girl, who still wants to marry James Stewart and whose favorite book is A Tale of Two Cities.

  • Dagwood

    Great, great post. You’ve got me fired up to watch the movie again this season, something I’ve skipped the past several years.

  • Paul

    Every year I watch “It’s a Wonderfull Life”. Every year it makes me cry. It never gets old. God I love that movie.

  • Victor

    I might be sixty three but nevertheless, I’m learning everyday that I’m simply a child of God and spiritually speaking if I may say, I’m very young indeed.

    Thank you for the memories and although I’ve seen “IT’s” a wonderful life” many, many times in the pass and if I might again say that I’m spiritually educated every time I see how God’s Angels are always around to help us when we have a sincere heart and joy jumps within this flesh of mine every time I see this movie.

    Ha yes! I’ll go off topic just a little to say “Merry Christmas” and there’s so much more that I want to say but I think I’ll simply quit while I’m still in the running if you know what I mean? :)

    God Bless,


  • Bender

    I suppose that George Bailey is a bit of the prodigal son’s “good” brother

  • Gayle Miller

    Victor expresses his age so charmingly, I may steal his method. Ergo, I am now sixty and seven! Having suffered a mild stroke in April which left no aftereffects of any kind, double pneumonia in May, and having had the two carotid arteries in my neck “roto-rootered” in August and September – I now feel that this is a Christmas to celebrate LARGE! I feel so happy to be alive and am boiling over with the milk of human kindness. I’m even inclined to ignore the various twinges of pain delivered to me by my back and my knees!

    I am alive and relatively unscathed. What’s not to be happy about? Seriously.

  • Victor

    I’m glad you’re aboard with us young at heart Gayle and yes our flesh has a few aches and pains now and then but like you say, “What’s not to be happy about? :)

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  • Gail F

    What a great assessment of the movie. I never saw it until I was about 25, and on my first viewing I said, “This is a terrible movie!” midway through, because George really gives up everything and it’s hard to take. When he is going to jump off the bridge, it’s powerful precisely because he is so bitter and angry… He knows perfectly well what he has given up. And that’s why the end is so good… because only then does he really learn what he gained for himself, as well as for others.

  • Paul Hughes

    Just a quibble, sort of, but I don’t think George Bailey spits in disdain — “Watch him spit in disdain at himself and his situation … ” His looks seems to suggest he’s spitting to “be tough” (conventionally speaking) but he gets it on himself, and it doesn’t look so tough after all — but it’s not true mettle, anyway. I see that bit more humorously, I think.

  • F

    Ah, Anchoress! Your post has convicted me!!
    I was going to bail out on a retreat tomorrow on Spe Salvi. Hope has been sprinkled all around me these days. This post, ending with hope yet again, tells me that I need to do that retreat. Bless you.

    I think those who make it to heaven will see what they were able to build with God’s help while on this side. Then they will rejoice that they gave things up and set themselves aside. That is what consecrations are all about. Being set aside for something sacred.

    Loved the GKC quote at the end!

  • Robohobo

    O/T with you permission = Posted @ Gateway Pundit concerning the GLSEN books and schools czar fiasco:

    “I commented on the first post and it’s effects on me. The rage has been building all day. This site aggregator is supposed to be “…published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.” I know, I know, you have a righteous mission to expose the filth BUT PUT IT UNDER THE OR KIND OF LINK. Under the fold or whatever. Even Playboy had the decency to put the centerfolds as hidden objects.

    I mean, c’mon, have some sensitivity to those who this may deeply effect.”

    What the heck is wrong with them, can you see it? You have my email.

  • K

    There once was a man from Nazareth, who fortunately, for us all didn’t stick around the town to make sure they had access to a good carpenter. No, he selfishly went out in the world where he was called by God to do what he knew in his heart he was meant to do, even though it was a struggle and an ultimate sacrifice.

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  • Micha Elyi

    And of course, K, the loss of the Son who did not follow his earthly father into the carpentry business deprived oh so many Nazereans of homes.

    The “wishes of society” are a false idol. That is the point the Ayn Rand novel that Joe Carter abuses to the applause of The Anchoress.

  • Andrew B

    I love “It’s A Wonderful Life”, but it still depresses the living heck out of me (until the last 5 minutes). In fact, I long made it a tradition only to watch it while doing something innately cheerful, like trimming the tree or making plum puddings.

    I guess I saw a bit too much George Bailey in my own life. I had put my life on hold to care for my elderly, cantankerous father in his declining years, and I was full of resentment and self-pity. It was always worse at Christmas, when I could see all my friends with their wives and families and contrast it with my own lot in life.

    But, as is so often His way, God had another plan in mind. He had my own, personal Donna Reed hidden away, just waiting for me to get over my headstrong ways.

    Now blissfully married, blessed with two stepchildren and a brand-new granddaughter…well, I think I will have a new appreciation for Frank Capra’s masterpiece this year.

  • Gunter

    I think many viewers miss that George Bailey will remain a divided man. If we can project a George Bailey ten years hence, he would still be struggling with his feelings of having been gypped by life. He knows Mr. Potter was right about him playing nursemaid to the underclasses. After the Christmas cheer wears off, it’s back to the Savings and Loan.

  • Victor

    What really stands out for me about this movie every time I see “IT” is the love and forgiveness that many of the people and angels have for this down and out man and let’s not forget that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his or her wings. :)


  • SallyJune

    My personal IAWL story.

    At Northwestern Univ in the mid 1970s, the film folk did a retrospective on the films of Frank Capra. We showed one major film each day. The film Capra asked to have shown on the day he arrived to give a lecture: IAWL. I remember nothing of Capra’s lecture, but his selection of this film was telling.

    Let us not forget, as well, that this was the film Stewart and Capra made after returning home from the War. George made possible his brother’s exploits as a war hero, but Stewart was himself a highly decorated officer. Greatest generation, indeed.

  • Allison

    I am surprised at what you wrote.

    –that we barely notice Bailey’s flaws for all his good points.

    Uh, no. I notice his flaws. He is, of course, trying to commit suicide. That’s not unnoticeable to me.

    In fact, his flaws are all I noticed the first dozen times I saw the film.

    I saw his anger. I saw his cheerlessness. I saw his grim terrible way of falling in love. He was a frightening man, trying desperately to do the right thing. But he was still frightening.

    The movie works because I saw all of those things, not because I saw a good man. If a good cheerful easy going, content man were suddenly driven to the edge, it would not make sense.

    The truth is the movie’s virtue is that in the end, he learns that his family is worth prison, they are worth pain, and they are worth sacrificing one’s dreams for. Charitable love, caritas, is worth losing ourselves for.

    I didn’t understand it the first dozen times I watched the film. I was upset for him, upset that he didn’t kick the dust of bedford falls off his feet, that he didn’t at least double his take home pay, that he didn’t travel, didn’t get to have his life ever.

    Capra throws in that the rest of the town has caritas too, esp. the DA. But of course, that’s not really true and that’s not what we’re called to. We’re called to give up our lives for Christ even way the bank inspector holds that warrant, even when no one is wiring money, even when we face shame.

    So he goes from his flaws to true caritas. A good man doesn’t really need to do that. There are pure souls in those who don’t discern because they already know. But for most of us sinners, we need real discernment, because we can never tell when our decisions are about us or about God, since we are so constantly trying to have our way.

  • Allison

    Let me add that I don’t think George Bailey is all that *good* a man.

    As a child, he’s good. As he ages, he becomes less good. The point is that he does what is expected of him, and that makes him bitter, resentful, frustrated. His wife is his shining beacon. It is not he who keeps the Bldg and Loan open during the run on the bank; it’s his wife. It is not he who wants to stay in Bedford Falls; it’s his wife. He doesn’t avoid getting into plastics because of some noble reason–he does it because he’s angry at what everyone else has, and he rejects it. He gets stuck over and over again as the people around him make decisions for him, or he makes them.

    But his society is not corrupt. So the expectations of his behavior lead him to do good, to do right. Corrupt just a bit of Bedford Falls and those expectations fail entirely. We need all of each other for us to stay on the right path.

  • Yes!

    Well done, Anchoress and Joe Carter! I applaud you.

    I understand that my post may be late, but I have some responses to the naysayers in the comments that I must post.

    @ K

    “There once was a man from Nazareth, who fortunately, for us all didn’t stick around the town to make sure they had access to a good carpenter. No, he selfishly went out in the world where he was called by God to do what he knew in his heart he was meant to do, even though it was a struggle and an ultimate sacrifice.”

    Assuming that you are defending Howard Roark and Ayn Rand, where is the selflessness and sacrifice in Roark’s decisions? Jesus Christ gave up his status as God in order to become a man and die a humiliating and painful death on a cross as a criminal and a scapegoat for our sins. Ayn Rand and saw Jesus Christ’s life one of failure, and saw what he did as immoral because it was not egoistic. Jesus Christ made the ultimate sacrifice; Howard Roark would never make any sacrifice for anybody.

    “And of course, K, the loss of the Son who did not follow his earthly father into the carpentry business deprived oh so many Nazereans of homes.

    The ‘wishes of society’ are a false idol. That is the point the Ayn Rand novel that Joe Carter abuses to the applause of The Anchoress.”

    No, the point of Ayn Rand’s novel(s) is that you should serve your own selfish interests, and disregard the needs of others. Her “heroes” (Howard Roark, John Galt, etc.) were all self-serving, and narcissistic. Jesus Christ was not a narcissist, and he did not serve his own selfish interests to the disregard of other people’s needs. His whole life was one of service, and he came to earth not to BE served (as a god) but to SERVE (as a man). Jesus Christ’s purpose in life was to serve (first to serve God, then to serve man). According to Ayn Rand, a man’s only purpose in life is to serve his own selfish interests. Her message is totally at odds with Christianity, and Joe Carter and the Anchoress are not abusing Ayn Rand by pointing that out (and neither are they asking that you serve “the wishes of society;” rather, you should serve the will of GOD, not your own selfish desires).