By Karen Wills
There’s a famous, though perhaps apocryphal, exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Fitzgerald says, “You know, the rich are different from you and me.” Hemingway responds, “Yes. They’ve got more money.”
I’ve been pondering wealth and its effects and just how authors have depicted very rich characters in fiction. Pat Barker’s novel, The Silence of the Girls, is set during the Trojan Wars with characters out of Homer’s Iliad. One of her characters, Agamemnon, is a nasty, boundary-ignoring king who never learned to share. He possesses vast wealth and vast power. He takes Briseis, a high-born captive woman awarded by the army to Achilles, away from him. He is brutal to Briseis, lacks honor in his dealings with Achilles, mistreats the powerless, and lies to his soldiers. But he pays a price in his greatest hero Achilles’ refusal to fight, the scorn of his Greek officers, and the costs of prolonged war. Although we don’t see it in Barker’s story, which centers on Briseis, Agamemnon comes to a bad end in spite of all his gold, concubines, and power when he returns home to his wife.
Move ahead to Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, in which a plain governess discovers that the wealthy, brooding, yet attractive master of the mansion has a mad wife kept in the attic. It appears to Jane that our tortured hero is an innocent victim of fate. But wait, in the sixties another British author, Jean Rhys, started puzzling over the madwoman. The result was a new novel, The Wide Sargasso Sea. Since reading it neither I, nor many others, have been able to see Mr. Rochester as anything but a money and power-hungry monster. His naïve first bride loses freedom, fortune, and sanity at the hands of this now rich and powerful villain. He even eventually gains smart, loving, caring Jane as his wife. But before that, the madwoman/victim inflicts some serious damage of her own.
Now back to F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, that story of wealthy scofflaws pursuing an amoral version of the American Dream. I’ll focus on Tom Buchanan, born into the upper class with an ego-fed sense of entitlement and an Agamemnon-like disdain for those less privileged. When Tom’s wife commits a hit and run, he buys them out of trouble that threatens to upset their lives. As the story ends, fate hasn’t seemed to exact a price for his corruption and carelessness with the lives of others. But I take comfort in the fact that The Great Gatsby was written and set in the mid-twenties. We all know what happened at the end of that decade.
These three characters, arrogant and immoral, are three different authors’ depictions of the very rich, written and set in three different time periods. They tend to be villains and authors find them useful antagonists. I’ve been trying to think of any wealthy character who challenges these recurring character types.
Can you think of any?
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