Friday, November 23, 2012

Literary Lucre



The idea of money, both the unlikely accumulation of it and the nerve racking experience of watching it run out, can be a pretty powerful thread to pull the reader through a book. It’s as universal a theme as there is. But you don’t have to read Og Mandino or Horatio Alger to see it done. Just consider these lasting images from some of our literary greats:

  • The coffee can piggy bank nailed to the floor of the tenement closet in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – always dutifully fed, and all-too-frequently raided in times of need.
  • The bags of gold buried under the brick floor in George Eliot’s Silas Marner  - which are dug up for continual counting, but disappear at the hands of a thief.
  • The small stash of silver hidden away in the earthen walls of Wang Lung’s farm house in Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth – a stash that is multiplied and invested in land until it becomes the makings of a “great house”.
  • The forty dollar kitty of the westward-bound Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath - a precarious sum that keeps us on pins and needles to see whether it can get their run-down jalopy across the desert and into California.


Money can be the driving force of the story, as are the boons bestowed by Pip’s mysterious benefactor in Dickens’ Great Expectations.  It can raise the stakes of the plot, as do Bingley’s and Darcy’s fortunes in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It can provide a mysterious back-story for a character as does Jay Gatsby’s ill-gotten wealth in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  Or it can be the measure of the rise or fall of a protagonist, like those experienced by Scarlett in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind

Money is something we’ve all got experience with (some more than others, to be sure) and it’s something that most of us keep a keen interest in throughout our lives. So while a good “up from nothing” story can appeal to all of us, it can be equally gripping to follow a monied protagonist- whether that’s Hank Reardon fighting to protect his wealth and his property in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged , or whether it’s Ebenezer Scrooge finding inspiration to share his wealth in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol .

I’m looking for more great books in this vein. Do any of you have any reading recommendations to share?

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