Wonder and Cruelty: Ontological War in It’s a Wonderful Life. By Steven Johnston. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a movie about a small-town boy who dreams big but ends up living small, who wants nothing more than to leave his hometown and do great things, but ends up with his father’s job and a family of his own, stuck right where he started. This man—George Bailey—suffers an unforeseen and terrible financial loss at work and, under this new pressure and the accumulated weight of his life’s disappointments, decides to kill himself. Here an angel named Clarence intervenes, and shows George Bailey that the world is infinitely better off with him in it, that he has, in fact, led a wonderful life, and that—as the film comes to an end—“no man is a failure who has friends.”
It’s a Wonderful Life is also one of those rare cultural artifacts that has come to connote a great number of things larger than itself: a holiday season, familial togetherness, small town Americana, the redemptive possibilities of genuine friendship. It’s also come to represent something even greater (and tougher to pin down) than these other things: a particular worldview or orientation toward life, a way of understanding and evaluating the world and its contents.
In Wonder and Cruelty: Ontological War in It’s a Wonderful Life, Steven Johnston takes aim at this last and largest aspect of the film. For Johnston, the film dramatizes a contest between “two distinct, well-matched forms of life and conceptions of the good”—and it shows, or at least purports to show, the ultimate superiority of one to the other (4). It vindicates the life George Bailey has lived, as against the life he might have lived, and in the process settles a great number of other contests: the stability of marriage and family against the novelty of single life, the rootedness of Bedford Falls against the cosmopolitanism of the larger world, the fulfillment that comes from self-sacrifice and self-denial for the good of one’s community as against the fulfillment that comes from following one’s dreams.
One of the central points of It’s a Wonderful Life—really, the central argument of the film—is that in judging himself a failure, George Bailey has made a mistake. In the words of his youngest daughter, praying for her father at the film’s opening: “something’s the matter with daddy” (54). George has evaluated his own life according to the wrong criteria, and has therefore reached a terrifically wrong conclusion. He must therefore be shown the correct criteria by which to evaluate his life, which is the work of the angel Clarence. Once George is shown the right way to understand things—the right way to measure the worth of a human being’s days—he comes to see that he has in fact lived a wonderful life.
At least, this is what we might call the naïve reading of the film. Frank Capra, the film’s director, puts it best and briefest:
“It’s a movie about a small town guy who thinks he is a failure and wishes he had never been born. He’s surprised to learn that he was not a failure, that he fitted into the scheme of life and actually contributed much to the happiness of several people” (104).
Johnston doesn’t agree with Capra’s interpretation of It’s a Wonderful Life, but he takes the film—and Capra—seriously, and puts together what might be called a brief for the other side of the argument: a case for the “form of life and conception of the good” that by the end of the film appears vanquished. In this sense, he reads the film against the filmmaker’s intentions—which is probably one of the greatest compliments a work of art can be paid. He also engages with the great volume of existing literature on the film, and offers his own reading not as the correct interpretation of the movie, but rather as one (exceptionally sharp and provocative) reading among many.
This reading, as I understand it, is as follows: The naïve interpretation of It’s a Wonderful Life, as offered above by Capra, only makes sense within a particular metaphysical or ontological frame. When Capra says that George Bailey is not a failure because he “fitted into the scheme of life,” he has a very specific version of this scheme in mind: a version in which the good life is to be found by fitting oneself to the demands of community and family. “[T]he conclusion to the film succeeds,” says Johnston, only if “we start with the assumption that there is one right way to live, according to one set of moral norms and codes, provided to us as a gift from God” (58).
For Johnston, therefore, It’s a Wonderful Life is “Primarily…a film about order, the order of the universe as designed by its Creator” (5). It’s no accident that the movie begins with a prayer and unfolds first as a series of divinely-screened flashbacks and then as an angelic intervention into George Bailey’s life. The success of the film, as measured by Capra’s intentions, rests on this understanding of a divinely-ordered universe in which there is one kind of best life to be led. George Bailey has a wonderful life because “he is living life the way it is meant to be lived according to God, nature, and reason” (6).
But what if we don’t believe this? What if we believe instead that “the universe is indifferent to human being, in which case whatever form of life we cultivate is one contingent possibility among many others”? (76) What if we believe that human beings are not meant to live in any particular sort of way? In this case, says Johnston, It’s a Wonderful Life is “a brutal film that requires George Bailey to repress his own lived experience of its repeated failure and affirm a form of life that he cannot, in the end, abide” (76).
In making the case for the second of these alternatives, Johnston shows us how Bedford Falls has disciplined George Bailey, over the course of his lifetime, into living in a way that doesn’t come naturally to him and doesn’t speak to his dreams or desires. Beginning in childhood, George learns that “Sacrifice, loss, injury, and pain” are central to a “moral life”; he learns that the right thing is often the thing that hurts (15). As he grows older, George is repeatedly asked to “sacrifice his conception of the good for the good as the community defines it”; he is asked repeatedly to forego his dreams of travel, experimentation, and creation on a grand scale in favor of fostering “stability and predictability” both in his own life and for the people of Bedford Falls (21). And he makes these sacrifices because he has internalized, with some resistance and considerable suffering, that living the right kind of life entails self-sacrifice, self-denial, even self-abnegation.
The good people of Bedford Falls are relentless in their education (or reeducation) of George Bailey along these lines, starting with his own family. But it is the “quiet war” waged against George by Mary Hatch, his eventual bride and the mother of his children, that meets with the greatest success (25). Together with his reluctant helmsmanship of the Building and Loan, it’s Mary Hatch who keeps George in Bedford Falls—even though, says Johnston, she is “greater than” and “superior to” any of the “roles she plays,” cramped and “seriously underemployed” as a small-town parent and homemaker (78). And when neither external pressure nor internalized norms are sufficient to keep George where he ought to be, the angel Clarence intervenes, prompted by the almighty to employ what Johnston calls “transcendental terrorism” to reeducate George once and for all (40).
Johnston does a good job showing us the dishonesty in Clarence’s scheme—for one thing, says Johnston, there’s no reason to believe that George Bailey’s absence would leave an empty space in the world, as though his personal intervention were needed at every turn—and he also captures nicely the “unreflective” nature of life in Bedford Falls, the town’s unquestioning and unquestioned belief in the “inherent moral superiority” of the way of life it fosters (10). He helps us to experience Bedford Falls as stifling rather than welcoming, and to take George Bailey’s depression seriously, as a product of self-denial rather than an outgrowth of childish dreams. He also explores some of the technical aspects of the film—scene transitions, set construction—and brings these to bear on his central thesis. Repeat viewers of It’s a Wonderful Life—I’m one—will enjoy this, and learn a great deal from it.
To read the film against itself, Johnston turns to Nietzsche, and casts George Bailey as a “figure of Nietzschean risk and overcoming” (11). In a universe that, contra Capra, is in fact “indifferent to human being,” containing “a range of goods from which we can choose,” George Bailey is driven to “create something with distinction” that will last beyond his own life (58, 73). By the end of the film, he has been browbeaten—terrorized, really—into embracing the “normal, ordinary” life to be found in Bedford Falls, even though such a form of life cannot come close to accommodating his outsized ambitions and creative energy (72).
Johnston’s analysis here is perceptive, and it’s also—even better—enlivening, which isn’t always the case when theory and art mingle. Johnston uses theory not to obscure but rather to clarify: he takes something about It’s a Wonderful Life that we sense but can’t quite put into words—and so can’t quite understand—and he explains it to us, gives us the words for it, and therefore helps us to grasp something that had previously eluded. This brings the film to life rather than deadening it; it’s a great example of how theory might be used to enrich our movie-watching experiences and elevate our conversations about movies.
In the spirit of conversation, and as (full disclosure) a cautious partisan of the naïve reading of It’s a Wonderful Life, I do have a couple of parting thoughts. The first is that while Johnston says that George Bailey’s identity—like all identities—is “both contingent and constructed,” he also draws a perhaps-too-neat separation between “imperatives that flow through him” (like the desire to leave Bedford Falls) and “elements effectively pressed upon him,” like “his sense of duty and responsibility to others and the community” (51-3). Johnston makes a convincing case that the action of the film supports this separation, but, as he also notes, we’re shown merely snippets of George Bailey’s life, not the whole story. What if these competing aspects of George’s identity are equally powerful imperatives? Would we then have reason to believe that he’d be any happier had he walked the road not taken?
Another thought: What if the road not taken isn’t really a road at all? Johnston mentions the Machiavellian insight that “fortune can strike anywhere, anytime,” but what about Machiavelli’s advice, given the capriciousness of fortune, that we adjust ourselves to accommodate the fickle winds of fate (73)? A lot of people have grand ambitions, and the vast, vast majority of them will end up leading “normal, ordinary” lives. The world is full of George Baileys, men and women with big dreams and small realities. Not because their spouses and neighbors conspire to entrap them, but rather because, as Johnston says, “the universe is indifferent,” and this indifference tends to impede rather than facilitate grand undertakings (58). On this reading, the hard moral of It’s a Wonderful Life is that most folks will end up like George Bailey—living inconsequential lives under an indifferent sky—and in order to continue to live, it’s necessary to decide (not recognize, but decide) that such a life is, in fact, wonderful.
But maybe things are not quite so hard. I think It’s a Wonderful Life goes further than simply urging us to accept what we’ve got and learn to like it, and instead mounts an affirmative case for smallness as against bigness—the smallness of George Bailey’s life as against the bigness of his ambitions. One of the key differences between this reading and Johnston’s shows up in Johnston’s footnotes, where says: “George neither needs nor wants recognition from Bedford Falls. The people in it are not his equals, and he can only find the affirmation he needs elsewhere” (97, emphasis mine). This matter-of-fact claim of essential difference between George and the rest of the folks in Bedford Falls—this notion that the people of Bedford Falls, because of the scope of George Bailey’s ambitions and the comparative narrowness of theirs, are not George’s equals—is a sharp departure from the deep sense of human equality embedded in the naïve reading of the film. The film’s case for smallness rests, I think, on the assumption of basic human equality—on the idea that human beings, whatever their ambitions, share a basic human dignity in common, none more than any other. In this sense, the contributions that George makes to the happiness of a few people in Bedford Falls are equal in worth to the contributions he might have made to the happiness of thousands—even millions—had he left. This is what Clarence’s intervention, theatrics aside, is meant to show George: not that the life he lived was better than the life he’d dreamed of, but rather that the life he lived had in fact satisfied his dreams. George Bailey may not have built bridges, but in improving the lives of those around him he has made a contribution no less majestic and every bit as grand.
On this reading of the film, the sign in Mr. Gower’s drugstore has it right: Ask Dad—he knows. When George disparages his father’s “shabby little office” at the Building and Loan—rather than working with his father, he plans instead to travel the world, attend college, and then complete grand projects of immense significance—he says of his own ambitions as distinct from his father’s: “I want to do something big, something important.” Peter Bailey urges George to go his own way, but he also gently corrects his son’s conflation of importance with bigness:
“I feel that in a small way we are doing something important…It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof, walls and fireplace, and we’re helping him get those things in our shabby little office.”
On this reading, the lesson Clarence teaches George is that his dad was right: a small life is just as wonderful as a large one—because of the equality of human beings, human worth, and human needs.
But this is just one more reading of this immensely generative film, and one that Johnston’s Wonder and Cruelty pushed me to think through more thoroughly than I had before, and articulate with (hopefully) some clarity. Johnston’s book is wonderfully provocative, razor-sharp, and pretty convincing, even for someone like me who doesn’t want to be convinced. If you’re interested in It’s a Wonderful Life—and you should be—you’ll be interested in this book. It’s a good one.
An excerpt from the book is available here.