The Hero of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ Isn’t George Bailey

by Eric Teachout


I think I’m not the only person that cries every time I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

The movie pulls our heart strings because we can all relate to George Bailey: man has dreams to see the world and do big things, but is instead given a meager life of service. Many reduce the film’s central message to a dichotomy of  selfishness vs. selflessness, for good or ill. However, it’s not the greedy capitalists or the needs of others that George is struggling against, but something much deeper. Ultimately, George is wrestling with his own destiny, and often in the midst of life’s frustrations, so are we.

I try to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” every Christmas, and after watching it this year with a friend, we noticed something new. It wasn’t the dramatic change in the protagonist, but the steadiness of his wife: the ever faithful Mary Hatch Bailey.

Now we’ve all been taught—by middle school English teachers and film critics alike—that morally perfect characters are flat and boring. If this is true, then Mary Bailey should hold no sway over our hearts. Throughout the plot, Mary is seemingly flawless; about the only crime she could be said to have committed is breaking a perfectly good record album.

And yet, while it’s George we relate to, we can’t help but find Mary incredibly desirable. She stands iconically as the devoted wife, and the movie is jampacked with these shining moments of Mary.

Take, for example, their wedding day.

George and Mary have scraped together a honeymoon fund of $2,000 to wine and dine and see the world. But, when there is a run on the banks, the beloved Building & Loan is out of money, and George must attempt to dissuade a mob of people thirsty for cash. Beholding such a moment, it would have been perfectly natural for Mary—who insisted that George never get out of the car—to become very upset for the ruined day.

But when faced with crisis, Mary holds up their wad of cash (equivalent to about $35,000 in 2018) and yells to the crowd, “How much do you need?” She doesn’t even blink at the opportunity to rescue her husband and community. Later that night, Mary fixes up the old, rickety Granville house for the honeymoon they will never have.

As the film progresses, George’s ungratefulness only becomes more sharply contrasted with Mary’s devotedness. When George reels over the temptation of a lucrative job under Mr. Potter, Mary gleefully announces that she is carrying their first child. George spends his days toiling at Building & Loan and disparaging his beat-up car, but Mary faithfully fixes up the house and raises their children. While George contemplates suicide over the misplaced $8,000, Mary goes on the move and resourcefully mobilizes the town to come to their aid.

Over and over, the film belabors the point that Mary is the better person. Through poverty and obscurity, Mary remains contented, apparently because she got her life wish of marrying George Bailey, despite his feverish restlessness.

The central plot and driving force behind “It’s a Wonderful Life” isn’t the virtuosity of Mary, but George’s personal transformation. Yet, it is Mary’s incredible devotion that provides the foil for us to see and appreciate that change within George. And insofar as George is a stand-in for ourselves, Mary’s impossible example exists to confront our own ingratitude.

In talking about “It’s a Wonderful Life” with my friend, she pointed out that all of Mary’s actions stemmed from a deep love for George. She lived to please George, but not for her own validation. Instead, she simply did what that love directed her to do. As Mary so prophetically declared as a little girl “George Bailey, I’ll love you till the day I die.”

As you enter the Christmas week, may you appreciate the film’s message, expressed in its title: No matter what cards life has dealt you or how dark things seem, there is something wonderful in this life that you must hold gratefully.

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In supporting Intellectual Takeout’s operations, Eric is responsible for the administration of strategic plans, finances, and mass communications. Eric received a B.A. in the Philosophy and Psychology of Ethics from St. Olaf College. With five years of admin experience, Eric enjoys using systems to facilitate effective missions and edifying communities.  Outside the world of admin, Eric likes dancing, cooking, reading, and time with family and friends.














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One Thought to “The Hero of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ Isn’t George Bailey”

  1. Xander Carey

    Eric Teachout,

    I read your article proclaiming Mary as the hero of It’s a Wonderful. I enjoyed your commentary. I think that George presents a multitude of dichotomies in his reality. He has his dreams in his life that through various situations or reasons he reluctantly brushes aside dreams, sacrificing what he feels others need as being more important than what he wants. It is the expectations of others that drive his life. His moral requirements that keeps him from the life he wants to have. In a bizarre twist Mr. Potter is seen as the evil person in the film, however, Potter (for me) represents temptation for George (or his dreams). Mary represents the angel on his shoulder. She keeps him focused and in the game of his life. She is a hero in many ways as she always maintains her loyalty and love for George. However, in her actions, she is motivated by her own desire to keep the thing she loves most, her husband, family , and their lives together. She has attained her greatest love. A man called George. George’s actions throughout his life can be viewed as selfless and sacrificing. His biggest flaw is his ambition to have the life he dreams of as being the life he needs. His second biggest flaw is his own vanity in failing to see that his existence has not had meaning because of the lack of material gain and worldly experiences. I must contend that George is still the hero of the movie because he is the only character that changes. His life and circumstances change a multitude of times and remains one of service and sacrifice. It tortures him even with his life made better with Mary and his children. His own vanity present a life with no purpose or value. Clarence, his angel, gives him proof of his life’s impact, only to return him to his old life. George’s eyes have changed. He can see his error of judging the value of his life based on broken dreams while being blind to the dreams that have been attained. Sometimes, (most times actually) it really is more important to get what we need than what we want. Zoom to the closing screen with a town of people showing the love and respect for a man who felt he had no value. From the town’s people, to his family, to his brother, and even Clarence, everyone in the scene owes George. Finally, they have the opportunity to give back. The money represent more than money, but an acknowledgement of their dreams, their hopes, and their lives that George (and his cast of supporting heroes) have helped them achieve. As George’s brother announces the truth, “To my big brother George, the richest man in town”, even George finally realizes that it has nothing to do with material gains or money. His purpose and point have never changed, just his eyes on how he understand is life. He is where he was always supposed to be. Oh that we should all be so lucky.