It’s a Wonderful Life

Brief Intro

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a 1946 American Christmas fantasy drama film directed by Frank Capra. The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has given up his dreams to help others, and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody. Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched and how different life in his community of Bedford Falls would be if he had never been born.

Literary Devices Used in It’s a Wonderful Life

“It’s a Wonderful Life” employs a variety of literary devices to enhance its storytelling, create deeper meanings, and connect with the audience on multiple levels. Below, we explore 10 key literary devices used throughout the film, presented in a detailed table format for clarity.

1. Foreshadowing

Movie SceneDevice Example
George saves his brother Harry from drowningSets up the importance of George’s self-sacrifice and his brother’s role in his life.
Mr. Gower’s mistake at the pharmacyPrefigures the theme of redemption and the impact of George’s actions on others.

2. Flashback

Movie SceneDevice Example
Clarence reviews George’s pastProvides background on George’s lifelong sacrifice and sets up his current despair.
Scenes of George’s youth and courtshipOffers insight into his character development and personal relationships.

3. Symbolism

Movie SceneDevice Example
The broken banister knobSymbolizes the ongoing struggles and imperfections in George’s life.
Zuzu’s petalsRepresent George’s care for his family and the impact of small, loving gestures.

4. Irony

Movie SceneDevice Example
George’s desire to escape Bedford FallsIronically, his actions tie him closer to the town and its people.
Mr. Potter’s view of George as a failureContrasts with the community’s view of him as a hero.

5. Metaphor

Movie SceneDevice Example
Bedford Falls vs. PottersvilleRepresents the impact of good vs. evil in a community.
The Bailey Building and LoanMetaphor for safety and support within the community.

6. Allusion

Movie SceneDevice Example
Clarence’s reference to Mark TwainConnects George’s situation to broader human conditions and literary traditions.
Mention of Tom SawyerHighlights themes of adventure and the importance of community.

7. Hyperbole

Movie SceneDevice Example
George’s exaggerated despairAmplifies his feelings of hopelessness to highlight the stakes of his situation.
The townspeople’s lavish praise of GeorgeServes to underscore his impact on the community.

8. Personification

Movie SceneDevice Example
The Building and Loan “needing” GeorgePersonifies the business as reliant on his moral integrity and leadership.
The town of Bedford FallsGiven life-like qualities, depicted as almost an entity that needs George.

9. Simile

Movie SceneDevice Example
George’s life compared to a war-torn heroLikens his sacrifices for the town to those made in battle.
Clarence’s guidance likened to a shepherdCompares his role to a guiding, protective figure.

10. Imagery

Movie SceneDevice Example
The snowy streets of Bedford FallsVividly sets the Christmas scene and evokes a sense of nostalgia and warmth.
The festive decorations in the Bailey homeCreates a warm, inviting atmosphere, contrasting George’s internal turmoil.

Character Analysis Through Literary Devices

Character Studies

In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” literary devices play a significant role in revealing the traits and developments of the main characters. Here’s a deeper look into how these devices highlight nuances of each key character.

George Bailey

Literary DeviceExplanation
FlashbackFlashbacks throughout George’s life illustrate his consistent selflessness and moral integrity.
Symbolism (broken banister knob)Represents George’s ongoing frustrations and the sacrifices he makes for his family’s well-being.

Mary Hatch

Literary DeviceExplanation
Metaphor (lighthouse)Mary is portrayed as a guiding light for George, often steering him back to his moral path.
ForeshadowingEarly scenes hint at Mary’s enduring support and crucial role in George’s life.

Mr. Potter

Literary DeviceExplanation
IronyPotter’s view of George as a failure is ironic, considering George’s actual impact on the town.
Symbolism (wheelchair)Symbolizes Potter’s immobility and impotence in affecting George’s ultimate moral stance.

Character Dynamics

The relationships between characters in “It’s a Wonderful Life” are intricately designed to drive the narrative forward. The dynamics between George and other key characters like Mary, his brother Harry, and Mr. Potter, use literary devices to deepen the thematic elements of the story.

  • George and Mary: Their relationship is a bedrock throughout the film, highlighted by symbolism in scenes like their dance at the high school, which foreshadows their life dancing through troubles together.
  • George and Mr. Potter: This relationship is steeped in irony and contrast, as George embodies community and compassion, while Potter represents greed and self-interest. Their interactions highlight the film’s core themes of decency and moral integrity versus corruption.
  • George and Clarence: Their dynamic is a blend of mentorship and guidance, with Clarence’s role as George’s guardian angel employing allusion (Clarence references literary figures like Mark Twain) and imagery (bright, ethereal light during key scenes) to underscore his guidance.

These relationships are crucial for pushing the narrative forward and deepening the audience’s understanding of the central themes. In the next section, we’ll examine how these themes are brought to life through various literary devices.

Thematic Analysis

In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” themes such as community, sacrifice, and redemption are explored deeply through the use of various literary devices. Here’s how these elements are highlighted:

The Value of Individual Impact on Community

Literary DeviceExplanation
Symbolism (Bailey Building and Loan)Represents the positive impact one individual can have on an entire community. The institution itself is a beacon of hope and support.
Metaphor (George as the “richest man in town”)Suggests that true wealth is found not in money but in relationships and community bonds.

The Power of Sacrifice

Literary DeviceExplanation
Irony (George’s sacrifices lead to his despair yet also his ultimate recognition)Highlights that his sacrifices, while initially seeming to lead to personal loss, ultimately enrich his life beyond material measures.
Flashback (George’s life choices)Reveals the depth and impact of his sacrifices, showing how each decision shaped the fabric of Bedford Falls.

The Necessity of Hope and Redemption

Literary DeviceExplanation
Allusion (Clarence’s quotes from Mark Twain)Implies that wisdom and redemption are timeless, echoing through literature and life.
Symbolism (Zuzu’s petals)The petals symbolize hope and the small yet significant reminders of why life is precious, driving the redemption arc forward.

These themes are interwoven through the narrative, enriching the film’s message and its emotional depth. In the next section, we’ll look at how cinematic techniques complement these literary devices to enhance the storytelling experience.

Cinematic Techniques That Enhance Literary Devices

In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” cinematic techniques not only visually captivate the audience but also enhance and complement the literary devices that drive the film’s narrative. Here is an analysis of how visual and sound techniques align with and reinforce the literary elements.

Visual Techniques

Literary DeviceTechniqueExplanation
Symbolism (Zuzu’s petals)Close-up shotsThe close-up shots of the petals in George’s pocket provide a powerful visual emphasis on this small but significant symbol of hope and family love.
FlashbackSepia tonesThe use of sepia tones during flashback sequences creates a nostalgic and historical feel, enhancing the audience’s understanding of George’s past.

Sound Techniques

Literary DeviceTechniqueExplanation
Irony (Potter’s disdain for George)Discordant tonesThe use of discordant tones during scenes featuring Mr. Potter highlights the emotional and moral dissonance between him and George, underscoring the irony in Potter’s judgments.
Foreshadowing (impending troubles)Ominous musicOminous music cues help to foreshadow the coming difficulties for George, setting a tense atmosphere that primes the audience for the challenges he will face.

These cinematic techniques are not just aesthetic choices but are carefully selected to deepen the audience’s engagement with the film’s themes and character arcs, making the literary devices more impactful.

Key Scene Analysis

Scene Selection

Key scenes in “It’s a Wonderful Life” utilize both literary and cinematic techniques to underline the film’s thematic and emotional messages. Below are breakdowns of several pivotal scenes, with YouTube links provided for a visual reference.

  1. George Saving His Brother Harry
    • Scene Breakdown: The scene where George saves Harry from drowning is not only crucial for the plot but uses visual symbolism and sound to emphasize the themes of sacrifice and brotherhood.
    • YouTube Link: George Saves Harry
  2. George and Mary’s Telephone Conversation
    • Scene Breakdown: This emotionally charged scene, where George and Mary share a phone call while listening to Sam Wainwright, employs close-ups and a soft, romantic score to highlight their deep connection and the tension George feels between personal desires and commitments.
    • YouTube Link: George and Mary’s Call
  3. The Run on the Bank
    • Scene Breakdown: The run on the Bailey Building and Loan showcases dramatic high-angle shots and a frantic score to emphasize the panic and high stakes, while George’s calming presence and persuasive speech highlight his leadership and commitment to the community.
    • YouTube Link: The Run on the Bank

These scenes are central to understanding the film’s impact and are dissected here for their contributions to both the narrative structure and the emotional resonance of the movie.


To wrap up our exploration of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and its use of literary devices, let’s engage with a fun quiz to test your understanding of the concepts discussed:

  1. What literary device is used to show George Bailey’s past life to both him and the audience?
  2. Which cinematic technique is used to enhance the feeling of nostalgia in flashbacks?
    • A) Black and white footage
    • B) Rapid cuts
    • C) Sepia tones
    • D) Handheld camera
  3. What does Zuzu’s petals symbolize in the movie?
    • A) The Bailey family’s financial struggles
    • B) George’s impact on the community
    • C) Hope and the importance of small gestures
    • D) The harsh winters of Bedford Falls

This interactive element aims to deepen your appreciation for how intricately the film weaves together literary and cinematic techniques to create a timeless story that resonates with audiences year after year.