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Reply To: An Xmas Thread To Share


There is a thoughtful piece in the Atlantic this month, called “The Mournful Heart of It’s a Wonderful Life,” that I believe you would appreciate, James.

The author, staff writer Megan Garber, raises several compelling points I had not considered before. One is that it’s an odd choice for a Christmasy feel-good movie, considering this is a film whose protagonist suffers suicidal depression as a result of repeated failure of his dreams, his hero’s journey perpetually derailed through a series of tragedies (every time he’s about to follow his dream and set out on his adventure, something interrupts: his father has a stroke, his brother marries and takes a better position, there’s a run on the savings & loan, etc.):

George does what he has to do. He stays in Bedford Falls. He sacrifices once more. The circumstances are coincidental; for George, though, they amount for much of the film to a senseless resilience. He is tested and tested and tested, with a notable absence of relief or reward. The hero with a thousand faces is left, instead, with a thousand loan accounts.”

So much for following one’s bliss!

She also brings up drowning as a recurring motif. George saves his brother from drowning when the boy’s sled breaks through the ice, losing the hearing in one ear as a result; as George and Mary boogie down at the high school dance, the gym floor opens to reveal the swimming pool beneath, a watery abyss into which our hero unwittingly falls; George, seemingly out of options, plans to take his life by throwing himself into the frigid waters of a rushing river; and, of course, George sets aside his own suicide to dive in and save the seemingly hapless Clarence (Angel, 2nd Class) from a watery death. I love that resonance (water, after all, often symbolic of the undifferentiated unconscious – this is a deeply emotional and psychological film).

Garber sees It’s a Wonderful Life as an ode to resignation and despair – how do we handle the grief of our failed dreams?

I suspect you and I see the hero’s journey story arc as more nuanced than does Garber. After all, how well did George really know himself? He thought he valued a life of travel and adventure more than anything else, but did he? I would argue we see his values in the What – and more specifically, the Who – that he sacrifices his dreams for: the druggist Mr. Gower, Violet the town slut, his brother Harry, Uncle Billy, and all the friends and townspeople under Potter’s thumb. George Bailey is called to a different hero’s journey than the one he consciously envisioned; for me, the film is about coming to an awareness of his own true nature, reconciling himself to his true calling (perhaps in the same way I didn’t consciously want to be a teacher – nothing glamorous about that – and yet, I was good at it, and loved it), and sharing his hard won boon.

Jumping in to the river to “save” his guardian angel, then being cancelled big time –completely erased – before returning to his life, is the transformational death-and-rebirth experience at the heart of a hero journey.

Garber does end up somewhere in the vicinity of the point you make about the movie that captures the sense of, as Campbell asks, what sustains us in the face of tragedy . . . definitely a relevant question in these times.