George Bailey’s Heroism

As I do every year around Christmas, I watched It’s a Wonderful Life recently. In between relishing my favorite moments, it dawned on me that what I was watching was the story of a man who more than anything wanted to have a real Hero’s Quest, yet was prevented from ever embarking on one. In fact, it is the story of a man who had to live the kind of life most of us live.

The Hero’s Quest starts with the Call to Adventure, when something happens that pulls the young man out of his home and on the road. But as much as George wants to have that happen, he keeps getting called to stay home. He’s about to head to college when his father drops dead of a stroke and George has to step in to keep his father’s business, the Bailey Building & Loan, going. He thinks he sets everything up so that his ineffectual uncle can take over, but then Mr. Potter, the ruthless businessman who runs most of the town, threatens to close the Building & Loan down; the board votes to keep it going on the condition that George will stay to run it. Four years later, when George’s younger brother Harry comes home from college, George is ready to cut and run at last, but Harry has come back with a new wife who reveals that her father has offered Harry a terrific job. Harry, conscious of George’s sacrifice, is willing to pass that opportunity up, but George, once again, lets the needs of others take precedence over his own (Stewart’s face in the 30 seconds that he is given to realize he’s never leaving Bedford Falls and accept it is one of the greatest feats of acting I’ve ever seen.) He even passes up an offer from a friend, “Hee-haw” Sam Wainwright, that could make him a fortune and opts instead to get married to a woman whom he knows wants to live in Bedford Falls forever.

George is one of those people who never gets to pursue their own dreams because of the claims others have on them. Interestingly, he’s been raised to be such a person by his own father, who has taught him to value connection and caring for other people over worldly success. The Hero, on the other hand, is all about accomplishment. He sets out to accomplish what Sheri Tepper calls “the single wondrous thing” that will prove his fitness to take over the throne of the king and rule in his turn. But George’s father is not the king of Bedford Falls; Potter is. And indeed, Potter recognizes that George might make a suitable crown prince and even offers to “adopt” him at one point, dangling a lucrative three-year contract as bait. But this call comes too late. George realizes he doesn’t want power; he doesn’t even want money. What George wants is what most people trapped in lives they didn’t choose want: adventure.

And like many people who can’t leave, George eventually finds adventure inside, in his own psyche. He has an extended dream or hallucination in which he observes his own life from the outside, as it were, and learns just how many lives he’s touched and saved, what his town would have been like if he’d never been born.

Like most of us, George never accomplishes a single wondrous thing; instead, he accomplishes a thousand tiny miracles just by living his life in accordance with the values taught him by his father. Potter may own most of the businesses in town and have the local politicians in his pocket; Sam Wainwright may be a millionaire; Harry may be a war hero; but George, it turns out, is the most important person in Bedford Falls.

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