We often can’t see our own mistakes through our rose-colored lenses. Instead, we can see errors more easily made by others when we are less emotional. The same happens when we find colorful characters in fiction who make blunders we know they should avoid. Reading books provide us with teachable moments.
Table of Contents
Five Classics Illustrate Money Lessons:
- Decadence Of Money
- Social status
- Reversal of fortune
- Accounting fraud and corporate greed
- Virtues of work
- Financial independence
These factors play a role in impacting the lives of the characters below. Often, we have experienced some of these very same financial issues but it often crystalizes for us at a distance when we read these classics.
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1. THE BEAUTIFUL AND DAMNED BY F. SCOTT FITZGERALD
“I shall go on shining as a brilliantly meaningless figure in a meaningless world.”
“Wine gave a sort of gallantry to their own failure.”
I recently finished The Beautiful and Damned by Fitzgerald, packed with money lessons. It explores the decadence of money, social classes, socialites, and elitism. The lives of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda likely serve as a model for this work.
Anthony Patch has returned to upper-crust Manhattan, having graduated from Harvard. He socializes with his wealthy friends, parties, and drinks heavily. Partying leaves little time for a career or work. As a presumptive heir to his grandfather’s fortune, he has no motivation to be purposeful. His grandfather, Adam Patch, raised Anthony after his parents died. The elder Patch made his wealth on Wall Street. Grandpa provides Anthony with an ample allowance. However, he has no patience for Anthony’s idleness, drinking, and lack of purposefulness. It doesn’t sit well with Adam, who is for prohibition politics.
Gloria Gilbert is a cousin of Anthony’s close friend, Dick, an author. She is an even match for Anthony by being a socialite who parties, drinks, and lacks seriousness. Seen as a beautiful couple with a bright future, they court (i.e., date) and eventually marry. Their relationship exposes their tendencies: jealousy, selfishness, being easily bored, and vanity. Gloria’s friends often ask Anthony about his laziness and lack of goals, to which he asks, “Why can’t I be gracefully idle?”
The Patch couple rent two homes in Manhattan and Westchester, which they cannot afford despite an abundance of money. Given the likelihood of inheriting a lot of money from Adam Patch, their friends envy them for their headstart towards wealth. However, Gloria and Anthony are wasteful of money and time. These tendencies grow worse as they move through their 20s. They spend heavily on lavish parties, dining, traveling cross country, and to Europe.
Intermittently, Anthony visits his grandfather but comes to hate seeing him. Adam Patch peppers him with questions about his lack of savings, overspending, investing, financial responsibilities, and lack of goals. He wants to understand how the Patches haven’t saved money with an income of $7,500 per year—combining Anthony and Gloria’s allowances. That they have not saved anything despite an abundant income disturbs his tycoon grandfather.
Adam starts to pursue his grandson’s opportunities even though Anthony insists that he is an author and spending his time writing. That said, he is yet to have published any of his articles.
Work Is No Occupation For The Patch Couple
At one point, Adam finds a job for Anthony as a bond salesman. Anthony tries to sell bonds but finds sales distasteful and quits soon after. Besides, Gloria has no fun when Anthony works because she has to sit around idly and alone. However, they recognize that Adam Patch could live another ten years and have difficulty making ends meet. Anthony has no financial independence, relying entirely on his grandfather.
World War I has begun, and Anthony goes for military training in the South. He meets a woman, Dorothy (Dot), who is relatively poor, clingy, and does not know about Anthony’s potential wealth. Anthony opens up to Dot, sharing how hard his life has been. Dot is a good listener and doesn’t require much materialism, as Gloria demands. The war ends before Anthony sees action, and he returns to Manhattan and Gloria.
Budgeting Isn’t Easy.
Adam realizes that they need to budget so that they can afford their rent. He starts to record their income and track some of their spendings. They begin to make changes, like moving to a smaller apartment. Unfortunately, they use their savings frivolously as they have little discipline to manage money. Gloria suggests earning money as an actress through a mutual friend who owns a growing movie studio. Anthony becomes jealous, refuses to let her do so.
They still have the house in Westchester and host a raucous party with dancing, drunkenness, and general depravity. At the height of the party, Adam Patch comes to the house unexpectedly. Adam is visibly upset and leaves with a friend abruptly. The next day, Anthony tries to see his grandfather apologize, but he is ill. Apparently, the party caused Adam’s decline. Within months, Adam Patch dies.
The Patches have counted on Adam Patch’s fortune. They never considered that there was any chance of not inheriting his money. However, at a reading of the will, Anthony Patch learns that he is penniless. Adam’s secretary and very distant cousins received the bulk of $40 million. Gloria and Anthony hired an attorney to file objections to the will. Besides not getting the money, Anthony faced shame as the lawsuit became public given Adam Patch’s stature. The case, including appeals, was expected to take years and many upfront payments for retainers.
Financial Jeopardy, He Should Have Had An Emergency Fund
“It was too late–everything was too late. For years now he had dreamed the world away, basing his decisions upon emotions unstable as water.”
The Patches needed emergency funds to provide liquidity. Anthony sold bonds to raise capital. At one point, he sold bonds that were only worth 30% of their par value. As a result of lacking money, Adam took the hit on the bonds. Yet, he still spent money frivolously. He treated his two best friends to dinner even though they made more money in their respective careers. As money became tougher to get, Anthony sunk into an alcoholic state. He spent most of his cash on cases of alcohol and stopped going out with friends.
Tensions were rising for the Patch couple. To raise cash, Anthony begins to write bad checks for rent payments. Then he tries to pawn his watch so he can buy drinks at a bar. He has trouble paying his retainer fees to his attorney as the case makes its way through the court system. It seems to be a hopeless case; he begins to believe he will lose the case. He misses the highest court’s decision because he was drunk and a mess.
The Case’s Decision
Gloria comes back to the apartment to tell him they won the case and get his inheritance. He doesn’t appear to care anymore. It is quite a downbeat ending for the reader. On the other hand, he doesn’t enjoy the win. Did Anthony get his just desserts, meaning that he caused his physical, psychological, and near financial demise based on poor management and discipline? He has never saved, didn’t have an emergency fund, overspent frivolously, lacked goals, and remained idle except for drinking. It is hard to have sympathy for Anthony and his wrecked life at the end.
Advice For The Patches
Anthony did not heed his grandfather’s advice to save money, invest, find a job, and earn an income. However, they would have been in far better shape had they boosted their income. Gloria and Anthony came from wealthy friends and families. They expected their wealth would come in the form of an inheritance. In the meantime, they overspent their allowances “to keep up with Jones.” Today we may refer to that as lifestyle inflation and something to be avoided.
The Patches should have controlled their spending, had a reasonable budget and an ample emergency fund. Adam, his wealthy grandfather, managed his money very well.
Virtues of Work
With a Harvard degree, Anthony would not have had trouble finding a job he liked. Work hard, and you can play hard.
.“Choose a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Whether Mark Twain or Confucius said this, it is a sentiment worth aiming for whether you plan to work for ten years or 40 years. Embracing hard work allows you to put away money for savings, investing, and emergencies.
I always valued my work, appreciated its challenges, and a way to give our lives meaning. Sure, there are still days we would instead not be working. However, seek fulfillment from your job and career or make changes. Explore and broaden your interests. Our jobs give us a sense of pride, independence, identity, purpose, a way to meet people, improve our skills, and of course, financial support. The Patches needed a set of reasonable goals and a game plan to execute for financial success.
2. THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET BY DAVID MITCHELL
“For white men to live is to own, or to try to own more, or to die trying to own more. Their appetites are astonishing! They own wardrobes, slaves, carriages, warehouses, and ships. They own ports, cities, plantations, valleys, mountains, chains of islands. They own the world, its jungles, its skies, and its seas. Yet they complain that Dejima is a prison. They complain they are not free.”
Make A Fortune And Marry Your Wife
Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, while not yet a classic, begins in 1799, in Dejima, a small port near Nagasaki, Japan. Jacob de Zoet has left his Dutch homeland to earn enough money and status to marry Anna, his fiance. First, he gained Anna’s father’s respect and approval to marry his daughter within a six-year timeframe. Jacob, the nephew of a pastor, is a young clerk with the Dutch East Indies Company. He has brought a valued Psalter from home but fears its discovery as a Christian book not allowed in Japan.
Accounting Fraud And Corporate Greed
De Zoet, an educated bookkeeper, stands out for strong moral fiber among unsavory and ethically challenged peers and managers. He is praised, promoted for honest accounting, and as quickly demoted and ostracized for his not wanting to sign off on doctored financial accounts. This novel is a morality tale released in 2010, shortly after the financial crisis. Accounting scandals and greed are not modern-day inventions.
Jacob favors the educated and those with strong moral fibers. He admires the highly trained midwife Miss Orito Aibagawa. Orito has exceptional skills in delivering difficult babies, having studied under the likable and respected Dr. Marinus.
Jacob’s High Mindedness
The Dutch East Indies Company’s members supplement their incomes by stealing money from the company’s accounts, smuggling, and cheating. They act according to their self-interest rather than that of their employer. The men justified illegal activities as they were stuck on a small island all year away from their loved ones. To Jacob, there is no justification for theft of any kind.
Good Versus Evil
Orito Aibagawa is a notable character for being independent-minded and well educated. She has more freedom and respect as a woman in this era. She grew up in a well-to-do intellectual family. However, she had a facial scar, which carries symbolism. Orito is a marked woman once her father dies. DeZoet devotes his life to save her and others subjected to rape and horrific captivity. There is a lot of cruelty and betrayal in this novel.
Jacob represents the best of characters. His intelligence, strong work ethic, modesty, and sense of morality are great virtues among the chaos.
3. WUTHERING HEIGHTS BY EMILY BRONTE
“It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff.”
Wuthering Heights is one sad story with a cast of characters hard to tolerate. This Victorian novel is rich with morality, love of money and social status, inheritance, and gender income inequality.
Thank heavens for Nelly Deans, as a storyteller to Mr. Lockwood, a boarder to Thrushcross Grange, caregiver to Mr. Earnshaw’s children Catherine and Hindley, the orphan Heathcliff. Mr. Earnshaw has taken in Heathcliff, who was homeless with low social status. However, Mr. Earnshaw begins to favor Heathcliff over his son, Hindley, who in turn is consumed by jealousy. Hindley leaves the estate to attend college.
Mr. Earnshaw dies three years later, and Hindley inherits Wuthering Heights. Once favored and pampered by Mr. Earnshaw, Heathcliff gets demoted to common laborer by Hindley. Hindley shames Heathcliff and becomes revengeful. Hindley marries Francis, and someone Hindley met in college. However, she soon dies in childbirth. Hindley drinks heavily and becomes more abusive to Heathcliff.
Money And Social Class Are Priorities
Catherine loves Heathcliff but marries wealthy Edgar Linton for money. She seeks social advancement, which Heathcliff cannot give her. The Lintons are socially more secure than the Earnshaws. Edgar loves Catherine, who learns to love Edgar.
Reversal Of Fortune
Heathcliff runs away from Wuthering Heights and comes into significant wealth mysteriously. He plans his revenge against everyone, especially Hindley. The latter has been mishandling money due to his despair and alcoholism. As a result, Heathcliff lends him money, and Hindley’s debts grow. When Hindley dies, Heathcliff inherits the Earnshaw estate. Keep in mind that women like Catherine were not eligible to inherit money and property in those days. Hence, Heathcliff was next in line. And that’s not all. By marrying Isabella Linton (sister of Edgar Linton), Heathcliff is now in line to inherit the neighboring Thrushcross Grange.
Heathcliff’s return to the Grange unravels Catherine as his demonic love for her is her demise and is ultimately the demise of every character.
The conflict between Edgar and Heathcliff is between good and evil. Heathcliff’s turmoil is everyone else’s torture, except for his nephew Hareton Earnshaw, son of Hindley.
Wealthy Heathcliff But Without The High Social Class
Rising to gentleman based on his accumulated wealth, Heathcliff lacks the manners and dress of one in that social class. The former homeless person was now asserting his power overall, acquiring both estates. Heathcliff is among the most demonic, unhappy, miserable characters in all of literature. Young Catherine, daughter of Edgar and Catherine Linton, marries Linton Heathcliff. Linton is a son of Isabella (Edgar’s sister) and Heathcliff, being among the weakest and most pathetic literature characters.
It was difficult reading this story more than a few pages without wanting to throw the book. It caused that much discomfort. Catherine Linton married for wealth, comfort, and social status and may have lost Heathcliff, the man she truly loved. Emily Bronte’s descriptions of the moors and scenery were beautiful breaks from its main character’s tirades and violence. I am glad to have read this unquestionably classic gothic story, rich in characters that will live on and on.
4. JANE EYRE BY CHARLOTTE BRONTE
“I am no bird, and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.”
“Some of the best people that have ever lived have been as destitute as I am; and if you are a Christian, you ought not to consider poverty a crime.”
Jane Eyre is one of my favorites of all time. The Bronte sisters produced memorable women characters. Charlotte Bronte may have remedied Catherine Linton’s weak character with Jane Eyre. This classic Victorian deals with wealth, social status, and, refreshingly, women’s financial independence.
“Reader, I married him.”
Jane Eyre, orphaned as a child, and a cruel aunt, Mrs. Reed, raised her. She is hired as a governess at the Thornfield Manor to teach Adele Varens, the ward of Mr. Rochester, a sad and dark character. She has strange encounters with Rochester, helping him fall from his horse and saving him from a fire at the manor.
Jane falls in love with him and is surprised when he proposes to her, given her low class. However, she learns Mr. Rochester is married to a woman who has descended into madness and is locked up away at the manor. The wedding ceremony is broken off. Mr. Rochester suggests they go to France and live as husband and wife. That proposal goes against Jane’s Christian values, so she leaves Thornfield with what little money she earned.
Jane’s Newfound Wealth
Becoming penniless again, Jane is taken in by the three Rivers siblings at another home and gets a teaching job. Jane learns that her Uncle John Eyre has died and left her a fortune. She realizes that her Uncle was also uncle to the Rivers, so she splits her inheritance with her new relatives.
Newly rich, Jane seeks to return to Thornfield and Mr. Rochester but finds the estate burned. Bertha, Rochester’s wife, set the fire and died. Now on an equal footing to Mr. Rochester, Jane rebuilds her relationship with him, and they are married. Before her inheritance, Jane had been too intimidated to marry the wealthy Mr. Rochester.
In this gem of a classic, Jane Eyre is a very progressive independent woman at a time when women, as brides, were expected to have a family dowry, property or money, to contribute to her future husband. Jane speaks her mind on parity to Mr. Rochester. We admire Jane for her strong moral character, generosity, and independence well ahead of her time.
5. THE SCARLET LETTER BY NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE
“She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter addresses public shaming, social isolation, conformity, earning money, and feminine resilience. Although it was written in 1850 and based in 1640s Puritan Boston, it remains relevant today.
Hester Prynne’s Strength In Adversity
Hester Prynne was a strong woman, accepting the consequences of her weak moment with reticent dignity. As a result of an extramarital affair in the 17th century, she had a baby (Pearl) out of wedlock. She has further exacerbated her crime by refusing to name Pearl’s father.
After a short inquiry, Hester Prynne is found guilty of adultery. She is required to permanently wear an “A” on her dress for all to see. The community is encouraged to shun, shame, and gossip about her. She stands on the symbolic scaffold for three hours, holding her baby while being exposed to public humiliation. Hester refuses to name the father of the child. Her husband is not present and is believed to be lost at sea.
Hester’s proud dignity runs counter to Pearl, her wild child “elf,” whom Hester loves and fears. Pearl is a complex character and represents a form of punishment that Hester endures. Among critical characters in the story are the minister (“good”) and the physician, Hester’s older husband, who returns (“evil”).
Symbols and themes enrich The Scarlet Letter: sin worn inside and outside, good vs. evil, lack of materialism, dreams, night and light, meteors, knowledge, “the Black Man,” witches, civilization versus the forest wilderness, societal outcasts, and strong feminine identity. Hester forgives those who have punished her. She is generous to them with the little resources she has.
Shared Her Meager Resources With Others
Hester worked hard as a seamstress to support her difficult daughter. By all accounts, she was a devoted mother. She shared her limited finances with others without expectations or recognition for her good deeds. Hester has forgiven the town folks. Punished by her neighbors, Hester is a dignified person with a strong moral caliber. Instead, it is the community, acting as a mob, whose behavior is immoral.
Strong Female Independence
Hester Prynne is an early example of female independence in literature. As a single woman, she is bold, takes care of herself and her daughter, Pearl. She earns her own money through hard work and shares her money with others. She violated social expectations and was cast out of the community. However, Hester’s ousting is freedom and redemption. She is free of social conformity. Ultimately, she returns to the town humbly and happy.
I have read and reread these books, finding so much more in these classics as time goes on. There are some books that we shouldn’t pick up until we are at least 40 years old. Sometimes characters such as these are like old friends you are visiting.
Indeed, The Beautiful and Damned, based on F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, is an excellent example of how not to handle money. At some point, after they were married, Gloria and Anthony decided that they wanted to have the best lives possible while they were in their 20s. They discussed not needing to save money for their old age because they expected to die young. F. Scott Fitzgerald died at 44 while Zelda was in a mental institution at age 30 and then killed in a fire at age 48.
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Have you read these books? Any books you would recommend with similar themes? We are always on the lookout for suggestions. We would like to hear from you!
With a passion for investing and personal finance, I began The Cents of Money to help and teach others. My experience as an equity analyst, professor, and mom provide me with unique insights about money and wealth creation and a desire to share with you.