Anthony Esolen on the Wonderful Life Most Think Impoverished
If you’re like my family, every year around Christmastime you sit down to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s a film that failed when it first came out. Perhaps Frank Capra hadn’t brushed enough honey around the rim of the cup, because there is a bitter drug in that drink, bitter but healthful. Yes, an angel gets his wings, and the cast breaks out into a rousing chorus of Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, and Jimmy Stewart croons a few off-key bars, homely and ordinary and believable. But beneath it all lies the bare truth.
Our lives seldom attain to any glory, not here. Only a few men can be war heroes, like Harry Bailey, or business magnates, like Sam Wainwright. The rest of us, just about everybody, will face the choice that the protagonist, George Bailey, faced all his life. We may recognize the duties that bind us to this spouse, these children, these neighbors, this family history, this utterly ordinary place called Bedford Falls, or we may go our own way, and pursue those objects of appetite that we commonly call “our dreams.”
Recall that the two most important events in the lad’s life are shaded with tragedy. George is a high-spirited and responsible boy. He saves his brother from drowning in an icy pond, and loses his hearing in one ear because of it. He saves his employer, the druggist Mr. Gower, from committing accidental homicide. The old man receives a telegram from the army notifying him that his son has died in battle, and he quietly drinks himself into a stupor in the back room. George notices the telegram, says nothing about it, notices too that Mr. Gower is not himself, says nothing about that, and then notices that the druggist has absent-mindedly put poison into someone’s prescription bottle. Then he does speak up, and Mr. Gower begins to thrash him for it. “Don’t hit me on my sore ear, don’t hit me on my sore ear!” he cries, just before the man comes to his senses.
It is a terrible moment. And overhearing it at the counter are two little girls who have a crush on George. One of them will be responsible for killing his dreams to go on adventures to explore far-off places like Tahiti. That girl, Mary, will become his wife.
A Significant Life
For George, red-blooded American boy, has big dreams. He doesn’t like the cramped little town he was born in. He isn’t interested in taking over the family business, the shoestring Building and Loan, run by his father and his incompetent Uncle Billy. He grows up and is ready to go. In fact he has his jalopy packed when the news comes to him that his father has died. The Building and Loan will not survive—the board of trustees will turn it over to the ruthless entrepreneur, Mr. Potter—unless George agrees to take his father’s place.
He does not want that job, but he is the only man who can fill it, and he understands that a great deal depends upon the independence of the Building and Loan. That is because the Baileys had determined that their business was more than business. They would lend money to people who could not get credit elsewhere, literally banking on a man’s reputation for hard work, clean living, and raising a decent family. They made it possible for other people to build, to enjoy their own small shops, their own homes. Perhaps it’s not much of a dream, to have a well-tended little house with a room set aside for tailoring, but it is for the fulfillment of those small necessities of other people’s lives that George gives up the unnecessary dreams of his.
Even his marriage to Mary, who has grown into a warmhearted and lovely woman, partakes of this sacrifice. She is a homebody, hardly likely to win George over. Her dream is to buy a shambling old Victorian house down the road and fix it up a little, restoring to it a little of its original handsomeness. The stairs are creaky, the windows are drafty, and the newel on the banister keeps coming off when you grab hold of it, but Mary loves it anyway. And there, were it not for a remarkable series of mishaps and some divine intervention, George Bailey would have lived out his days in obscurity and contentment and some lingering sense of glory missed, forever.
Most of my readers will recall the disaster that threatens to bankrupt the Building and Loan and send George to prison. I’ll only note that when George stands on the bridge, ready to throw himself into the river and die, he is once again on the verge of leaving, this time for good. He is prevented, of course, by the amiable angel Clarence, whom he rescues from the river instead; again, giving up a dream for the sake of someone else.
Clarence will show him that his life has been significant. If he had not lived, his brother Harry would have died. All the men whom his brother saved on their sinking ship would also have died. Mary would never have blossomed; she would have sunk to the life of a lonely librarian, a spinster. The other girl at the druggist’s would have become a streetwalker. Mr. Gower would have lost his business, having poisoned his patient, and become a loathsome, homeless drunk. Worst of all, Bedford Falls would have become Potterville. More about that in a moment.
Anthony Esolen is a professor at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (anthonyesolen.substack.com), on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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