Study Guide

It's a Wonderful Life Themes

  • Dissatisfaction

    You can't always get what you want. And in It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is painfully learning that lesson. In his desperate moments, he doesn't think he's got anything he wants.

    Most young people are idealistic; we're supposed to be. We all have high hopes and pie-in-the-sky plans for our lives, but not all will turn out. That's why we all have midlife crises like George. George's dissatisfaction stems from the difference between his big ambitions and his actual life. He doesn't think he's accomplished anything by running the Building and Loan. He feels like he's missed out by failing to fulfill his youthful dreams of traveling the world and becoming a great architect. Fortunately, a guardian angel is at hand to put his life into a greater perspective.

    To put meaning back in his life, George has to learn to be satisfied with the life he's living rather than obsessing about the one he could have lived. It doesn't take wealth to be happy; the best things in life are free. We're surprised that song wasn't on the soundtrack.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. Do you think most people feel dissatisfied if they don't end up becoming LeBron James or Genghis Khan (or another famous overachiever)? Is George Bailey unusual in feeling like he didn't achieve his potential?
    2. Do you think Mr. Potter ever feels dissatisfied? If so, what would he feel dissatisfied about?
    3. What's the key to satisfaction in life according to It's a Wonderful Life? Do you agree?

    Chew on This

    George wouldn't have had his crisis if he'd had more modest expectations of life.

    It was natural for a small-town kid like George to be discontented with his life in Bedford Falls and want more out of life.

  • Family

    Check out that last scene of It's a Wonderful Life, and you know what it's all about. George has four adoring kids hanging on him and his perfect wife gazing lovingly into his eyes. Isn't your family just like that? No? Oh, that's right—your family lives in the real world.

    George Bailey has been a model, dutiful son: taking over the family business, seeing that Harry goes off to college, and defending his father's memory when Potter trashes it. He recreates his own loving family in the family he creates with Mary. To be fair, the family isn't completely perfect. George finds his family of origin a little confining. His family with Mary deals with financial stress and George's self-doubt. They have an eccentric Uncle Billy who needs someone to keep an eye on him. Honestly, though, Shmoop wouldn't mind being adopted by the Baileys.

    By contrast, Mr. Potter doesn't have any family (or friends, for that matter); he's alone, bitter, and completely without compassion. George's family grounds him and helps him find meaning in the life he's ended up with in Bedford Falls. Family is what George has leaned on, and it's what ultimately gets him through his crisis.

    No family is perfect, but the Bailey clan seems pretty darn close.

    Questions About Family

    1. The movie assumes Mary wouldn't be happy as a single librarian. Might she have been?
    2. Mr. Potter doesn't have a family. Would he be happier if he did have one, or would he be the same kind of guy?
    3. Does having children change George's personality at all?

    Chew on This

    George's father heavily influences his values and priorities.

    George sees himself as more ambitious than the rest of his family.

  • Friendship

    George Bailey has more friends than Mark Zuckerberg. He's kind, generous, funny, and gregarious. What's not to love?

    Psychologists, who know everything, have known for ages that social support can help people cope with the effects of crisis and change. And your friends (and family) are your social support network. So, how can George, with all of those friends, get to the point of wanting to throw his life away? Well, we didn't say that social support prevents crisis and change; nothing can do that. But, it helps people cope with crises when they inevitably arrive.

    That's just what happens with George. When he's at his lowest point, his friends come through with spiritual (prayer) and practical (buckets of cash) support. He's practically drowning in love at the end of the movie. Seeing him surrounded by all of those friends, we know that he's gonna be OK.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. What is it about George that makes people want to be friends with him?
    2. Would George have survived without his friends?
    3. Why does George forget his conviction that friends are what make you rich?

    Chew on This

    The movie suggests that it's easy to make friends in a small town because everyone depends on everyone else.

    Potter's lack of friends shows us from the start that he's the villain of the story.

  • Greed

    Ebenezer Scrooge, Simon Legree, Milo Minderbinder—Henry Potter is in good fictional company. Mr. Potter wants to own everything in Bedford Falls, and he resents the Baileys because they stand in his way.

    In It's a Wonderful Life, George and his father are the opposite of greedy. Their business is founded on generosity; they make loans to people even if they're poor. They sure don't get rich from it. Potter, on the other hand, does nothing if it doesn't enrich him. The Baileys, by helping low-income people build or buy houses, take money out of Potter's pocket; people can move out of his slummy apartments into their own homes. That's why Potter has it in for them.

    Greed is one of the seven deadly sins, and as far as Frank Capra is concerned, it's way up there on that list. Potter has got all of the money he needs, but it's never enough. His need to get even more makes him trample anyone who gets in his way.

    Questions About Greed

    1. Why is Mr. Potter so greedy even though he doesn't have friends, family, or anyone to take care of? What would he even do with his money?
    2. Is there any greed in George's early ambitions to travel the world and become a big success?
    3. How does greed transform Bedford Falls into Pottersville? How come no one except George is able to prevent this from happening?
    4. Does a rich person like Sam Wainwright provide a different version of wealthy ambition than Mr. Potter?

    Chew on This

    The film suggests that greed destroys a person. Potter is unhappy, mean, and friendless because he's motivated by greed.

    Potter is no more greedy that your average business titan. He's just doing what he has to do to protect his financial interests. To paraphrase Gordon Gekko, greed is good.

  • Love

    Whoever wrote "All You Need Is Love" was probably watching It's a Wonderful Life at the time. Maybe they were showing it on BBC TV.

    Anyway, love is ultimately what saves George Bailey. He's always been surrounded by loads of friends and family that adore him, but he loses sight of that when he's faced with possible financial ruin. After Clarence's little life-review tour, George gets his priorities back in order and runs back to the people who love him. And, we can't forget that God's love for George kicks off the whole chain of events.

    There's a sweet rom-com embedded in the film, too. Mary has been head-over-heels for George from the time she was a little girl, but he doesn't really notice her until after high school. She goes off to college, and he's stuck in town, but four years later, he's still her crush. Their love overcomes a few obstacles like ex-boyfriends and financial ups and downs, but Mary sticks by him no matter what. When she was a kid, she told him she'd love him till the day she dies. She meant it.

    Questions About Love

    1. How does Mary's love for George help him to realize that his life has actually been really valuable?
    2. How does George's family express their love for each other?
    3. Where does George get his huge capacity for love?

    Chew on This

    Mr. Potter's life is meaningless and empty because he lacks the ability to give or receive love.

    George gives in to despair because he loves the people around him but has stopped valuing himself.

  • Loyalty and Devotion

    It's a Wonderful Life's George Bailey is the poster boy for loyalty. He's epically loyal to his family, his business, and to Bedford Falls, even though he thinks it's a hick town. That's why, when his father dies, he takes over the Building and Loan instead of letting it fall apart. That would've been like handing over the whole town to Mr. Potter.

    He's loyal to his principles, too. He's just about to accept Potter's offer of a mind-boggling salary when he realizes this would mean turning his back on everything he believes in.

    George sticks by his customers even when they can't pay him back; he never lets anyone say a bad word about his father; he's a good friend to Violet despite her sketchy reputation. Where does all of this loyalty get him? Broke and suicidal, feeling like a chump and a failure. Fortunately, that's only temporary. His devotion to the town pays off; they pay all that loyalty forward and rush to his rescue.

    Questions About Loyalty and Devotion

    1. What makes George remain loyal to Bedford Falls even though he professes to think it's a "crummy little town" early on?
    2. Bedford Falls repays George's loyalty in the end. Is this kind of loyalty something we can really count on? Should we expect to get paid back for our good actions or do good with no such expectations?
    3. How could a man so devoted and loyal to his family thinking of killing himself?

    Chew on This

    George is loyal to Bedford Falls because of all the love and support it's given him over the years.

    George is loyal to Bedford Falls not because of what it's given him but rather because he's just that kind of guy.