Besides Having More Money: The Rich in Fiction

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, silence of the girlsis 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. jane eyreBut 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, great gatsbyborn 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?

river with no bridge

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What Our Characters Keep

By  Karen Wills

“All these items you’re safeguarding are, in essence, the relics of your life’s defining moments.”                   Chip and Dan Heath, The Power of Moments

Authors can depict and clarify fictional characters by their keepsakes. Sometimes such objects are discovered and loved in a protagonist’s childhood because they’re connected to influential adults.

overstoryIn Richard Powers’, The Overstory, Nick Hoel, destined to become an artist, is fascinated by a series of photographs taken every month since 1903 of the sentinel chestnut on his family’s farm in Iowa. He keeps the stack of photos intact throughout his life which becomes as singular as the chestnut itself. The tree and the photographs ultimately shape Nick—his values, his devotion to one woman, and his fate.

In another of my favorite novels, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, gentleman in moscowthe aristocrat Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced during the Russian Revolution to life under house arrest in the Metropol, Moscow’s most luxurious hotel. Moved to a cramped attic room, he must choose only a few possessions to take with him. One choice is a portrait of his deceased younger sister, Helena. He loved her, and her portrait also evokes memories of Idlehour, his family’s country estate. He associates the painting with his idyllic boyhood as part of a refined, privileged, and noble family. The siblings’ history shows the foolishness and sometimes cruelty of the old life as well. Both Helena and Idlehour are part of the beloved lost past. But our charming Count might still have a most surprising future.

In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, thirteen-year-old Theo rescues a precious painting following a terrorist attack on the museum where the work by the Dutch master Fabritius is part of an exhibit. The attack leaves Theo’s mother dead. He carries the little painting with him for years, never revealing that he has it. Its beauty sustains him through grief, loneliness, and one of the most interesting friendships ever created by an author. At the novel’s end, he ponders everything that has happened, and realizes that he kept the painting first and foremost because it is so touching and exquisite.

goldfinchHe thinks, “And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them…while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”

What our characters choose to keep safe can help define them. If we accept that a bit of ourselves exists in each of our characters, perhaps their keepsakes help define us, too.

river with no bridge

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Mystery and Wilderness in Fiction

By Karen Wills

My husband and I made up a personal list of criteria for good fiction. One of our essentials is mystery. By that we don’t mean crime solving. We mean the lure of what hovers just beyond the obvious. It’s what makes us tell our book club or other friends to read it so we can talk about it.

In literature it’s sometimes found in complex characters or in nature. I used the wilderness as setting that is almost a character in my historical novel, River with No Bridge. For me, books set in the wilderness often have mystery. There’s richness to that.

In Eowyn Ivey’s historical novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, to the bright edgea husband is one of the first to head an expedition to explore Alaska Territory’s Wolverine River Valley while his pregnant wife waits at Fort Vancouver for his return. In a letter to her he muses, “I suppose the wilderness does have its draw. She always keeps a part of herself a mystery.” Later he says, “It is a grand, inscrutable wildness. Never are the people here allowed to forget that each of us is alive only by a small thread.”

For authors and artists conveying the wilderness while honoring its mystery is challenging. In her novel about the artist Emily Carr, the forrest loverthe late Susan Vreeland wrote, “She looked back at the forest—more dense and tangled and full of mystery than the forested part of Beacon Hill Park at home. How could she ever paint it? No art school taught how to paint such immense, paralyzing magnificence.”

And yet, some of us keep writing about, or painting, those precious wild places that still exist. How long wilderness has existed. We marvel at the geology of places like Glacier National Park and find an awed comfort in astronomy. Poet Robinson Jeffers wrote these lines,

The stars shine in the sky like the spray of a wave

Rushing to meet no shore, and the great music

Blares on forever…

Perhaps, the meaning of wilderness is that wild beauty creates its own mystery.

river with no bridge

 

Now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kindle

https://karenwills.com

Face Book: Karen Wills Author

Mystery and Wilderness in Fiction

By Karen Wills

My husband and I made up a personal list of criteria for good fiction. One of our essentials is mystery. By that we don’t mean crime solving. We mean the lure of what hovers just beyond the obvious. It’s what makes us tell our book club or other friends to read it so we can talk about it.

In literature it’s sometimes found in complex characters or in nature. I used the wilderness as setting that is almost a character in my historical novel, River with No Bridge. For me, books set in the wilderness often have mystery. There’s richness to that.

In Eowyn Ivey’s historical novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, to the bright edgea husband is one of the first to head an expedition to explore Alaska Territory’s Wolverine River Valley while his pregnant wife waits at Fort Vancouver for his return. In a letter to her he muses, “I suppose the wilderness does have its draw. She always keeps a part of herself a mystery.” Later he says, “It is a grand, inscrutable wildness. Never are the people here allowed to forget that each of us is alive only by a small thread.”

For authors and artists conveying the wilderness while honoring its mystery is challenging. In her novel about the artist Emily Carr, the forrest loverthe late Susan Vreeland wrote, “She looked back at the forest—more dense and tangled and full of mystery than the forested part of Beacon Hill Park at home. How could she ever paint it? No art school taught how to paint such immense, paralyzing magnificence.”

And yet, some of us keep writing about, or painting, those precious wild places that still exist. How long wilderness has existed. We marvel at the geology of places like Glacier National Park and find an awed comfort in astronomy. Poet Robinson Jeffers wrote these lines,

The stars shine in the sky like the spray of a wave

Rushing to meet no shore, and the great music

Blares on forever…

Perhaps, the meaning of wilderness is that wild beauty creates its own mystery.

river with no bridge

 

Now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kindle

https://karenwills.com

Face Book: Karen Wills Author

Natural Observers: Susan Fenimore Cooper, Mary Hunter Austin, and Nan Shepherd

By Karen Wills

Nature writing reaches my heart. It does that through poetic, detailed description of an outdoor setting. In the last months I’ve read three wonderful books by women nature writers. Let’s consider them from earliest to most recent.

Susan Fenimore Cooper,cooper James Fenimore Cooper’s daughter, founded an orphanage in Cooperstown, New York, a town established by her grandfather. She made a success of the enterprise in every way. In 1887 she also wrote Rural Hours, nature writing that covered a year in Cooperstown season by season. Much of it appeared as journal entries recorded after walks that ranged over the countryside. Both writer and artist, she also made watercolors of birds, coopers birdflowers, animals, and the lake near the town that drew her to its shores over and over. Her writing was accurate and poetic.  “Spring has a delicate pencil; no single tree, shrub, plant, or weed, is left untouched by her, but Autumn delights rather in the breadth and grandeur of her labors, she is careless of details. Spring works lovingly-Autumn, proudly, magnificently.”

Already sorry for the damage caused by the post Civil War increase in America’s population, she also conveyed a warning familiar to modern conservationists. “The rapid consumption of the large pine timber among us should be enough to teach a lesson of prudence and economy on the subject.”

Mary Hunter Austin wrote a collection of nature essays, The Land of Little Rain, in 1903. mary austinShe focused on the Mojave Desert including Death Valley. She considered Nature as an entity with a beneficial connection to Native peoples and recent arrivals alike. She mixed small matters of opinion in with the big themes.  “This is the gilia the children call ‘evening snow’ and it is no use trying to improve on children’s names for wildflowers.” She is poetic. “The origin of mountain streams is like the origin of tears, patent to the understanding but mysterious to the sense.”

Finally, there’s Nan Shepherd who wrote her best-known work, The Living Mountain, with a mountaineer’s authenticity. nan shephardHer setting is the Cairngorm Mountains of Northern Scotland. Writing in 1944, she shared her belief in nature’s grand unity. “The disintegrating rock, the nurturing rain, the quickening sun, the seed, the root, the bird—all are one.”

Each of these writers had a poetic respect and thorough knowledge of her most favored area of the natural world. We are the richer that each shared her love of nature with us.

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