Dr. Becky Lee Meadows, associate professor of English at St. Catharine College, recently presented a paper regarding the film “It’s A Wonderful Life” at the Popular Culture Association in the South / American Culture Association in the South conference in Savannah, Ga.
Meadows observed that people usually view “Old Man” Potter’s face with disgust as he listens to George Bailey’s confession of mishandling funds in Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece film, It’s A Wonderful Life. After all, Bailey is a good man who has spent his life aiding others, often to the detriment of his own self and dreams. Surely a Judeo-Christian God of justice would see Bailey rewarded appropriately for his actions, as well as punish Potter. And yet, even as viewers see Bailey’s friends line up, hands full of cash, at the end of the movie, they also see an absence of Potter, the quintessential evil presence that actually gets away with Bailey’s $8,000 mishandled by George’s Uncle Billy. Viewers are left unsettled even as they realize Bailey will not go to jail for a crime he did not commit. Even Uncle Billy is safe. However, viewers are left to ask: why was justice not complete?
According to Meadows, Bailey falsely confesses to several “sins” in the film in his efforts to save others, and these actions serve as the barrier between him and complete Judeo-Christian justice. While Bailey is saved through God’s intervention through Bailey’s friends, Potter skips away with the missing $8,000 that Bailey’s Uncle Billy misplaced.
Meadows presented these ideas in her paper, “Beyond Good and Evil: The Phenomenology of Confession in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life,” at the Popular Culture Association in the South/American Culture Association in the South conference. The conference was held in Savannah, Ga., Oct. 3-5.
“We think of self-sacrifice as a good thing in our culture,” Meadows said. “When it’s accompanied by an actual lie, though—even one that is meant to save others—according to philosopher Paul Ricoeur, the lie defiles us, which leads to our self-conception of sin. ‘Sin’ is the conscience recognizing that the bond between man and God has been broken.”
While this work may seem at odds with Meadows’s primary area of scholarship, Gothic and horror in culture through the lens of the Humanities, in essence it is not because it involves the application of hermeneutical phenomenology to the consciousness of a fictive character, an area she has explored in several other works of scholarship.
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