Throughout the story, George is shown as a selfless person since childhood. He saves his younger brother, Harry, from drowning, after he accidentally slides down (on a shovel) into icy water. Rescuing him causes George to lose hearing in one ear. He saves his boss, Mr. Gower, from jail time when he accidentally puts poison in a customer's prescription. Like many boys his age, he is mostly oblivious to the deep crush his friend, Mary Hatch, has on him--and even to the more blatant flirting of young Violet. From a young age, he always wanted to go to college, travel, and see the world; however, he keeps having to postpone the fulfillment of these ambitions time after time.
First, his father, whose drive to run what George sees as a rinky-dink savings and loan often confounds him, takes ill and dies suddenly, and the only way George can keep the Building and Loan from being absorbed by Mr. Potter is to take the reins himself. When Harry returns from college, he has a wife and a very good-paying job, and George releases him from his promise to take over the business. When he realizes he is in love with Mary Hatch, they marry and leave for their honeymoon right on the eve of one of the great bank panics that were seen during the Depression. With Mary's blessing, George uses their honeymoon money as seed money to keep the Building and Loan open during the panic. The intervening years and even World War II see George and his growing family in a tight struggle to keep above water and help the other people in town to purchase homes of their own. When a seemingly good offer from Mr. Potter turns out to be just another grab at the Building and Loan, George goes out of his way to show the bitter old man his contempt.
With the war done and Harry returning home (George was not able to serve due to his hearing loss), George entrusts his forgetful Uncle Billy with $8,000 required by the FDIC. This proves a mistake when Uncle Billy loses the money, and George does not know that Mr. Potter has it. Facing ruin, jail and the stark thought that his life has meant almost nothing, he is on the verge of committing suicide by jumping off of a bridge into the river below. However, his guardian angel, Clarence Oddbody, stops him, and seizes upon a remark made by the distraught, disbelieving George. Clarence then shows him what life in his hometown, Bedford Falls, would be like if he had never been born--a world belonging to Mr. Potter. When George realizes suicide is a mistake, he goes back to the bridge and utters his famous line, "I want to live again." He soon returns to his world, and the citizens of Bedford Falls come to greet him and donate money to replace the missing $8,000. Harry salutes him to cheers from all those he has helped.