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Generosity and Money in Literature

It is not surprising that the Bible contains so many stories and parables, for a story can communicate a lasting lesson in the way that few other things can. Stories can inspire us toward virtue, or they can cause us to grieve for brokenness. The works below tell us something important about money and the human heart. Some depict the downfall and sorrow that result from greed. Others steer us toward diligent stewardship and teach us to avoid profligacy. But many also show the healing power of generosity in the lives of both giver and recipient.


Fables

Badman Is a Bankrupt and Gets It by ‘Hatfuls of Money’
John Bunyan. Chapter in “The Life and Death of Mr. Badman: Presented to the World in a Familiar Dialogue between Mr. Wiseman and Mr. Attentive.” 1680.
Best known for his classic allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan (1628-88) offers wisdom regarding the topic of money and debt in this excerpt from his shorter allegory. Although Mr. Badman did not deal responsibly with money, Mr. Wiseman and Mr. Attentive share what the Bible has to say about Mr. Badman’s actions.

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Fables
Aesop.
These fables, created 600 years before Christ and passed down orally, have become staples in children’s literature around the world. They teach, among other things, the value of thriftiness and generosity. The Miser and His Gold illustrates that “wealth unused might as well not exist.” The Lion’s Share warns of the greed that often comes with power. The pitiful characters Avaricious and Envious teach us that “vices are their own punishment.” Directed to parents as well as children, The Young Thief and His Mother presents a strong warning to parents about indulging sinful behavior. The Ant and the Grasshopper teaches the value of putting something away for “the days of necessity.”

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Novels

The Count of Monte Cristo
Alexandre Dumas. 1844-45.

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The Winter of Our Discontent
John Steinbeck. 1961.
Ethan Hawley is a Harvard graduate of proud New England stock, yet he can’t seem to cut it in the financial world. Only a grocery store clerk, his friends and family press him to be more aggressive and “do what it takes” to move up in the world. Ethan begins to wonder why he clings to his Old World values when all around him is corruption. He could easily rob the local bank and not be caught—but could he live with himself afterward? Ethan must decide whether he lives in a relativistic world—where corruption is just a modern business practice and fending for oneself is the unwritten code—or whether there are, indeed, transcendent moral standards. This book is a fascinating study of human will and responsibility in the face of financial temptation. No downloadable text or audio is available at this time.

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Vanity Fair
William Makepeace Thackeray. 1847-8.
Subtitled “A Novel without a Hero,” Vanity Fair tells the story of the opportunistic Becky Sharp. Becky uses her beauty and cunning wit to move up in society, being as addicted to upper-class life as an opium addict to his drug. One of the most notorious women of literature, Becky says, “I think I could be a good woman, if I had five thousand a year.” Her love of money and utter lack of morality take her to the top but also bring about her downfall.

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Middlemarch
George Eliot. 1871-72.
This 19th-century British novel—often considered one of the best works in English—deals with issues of money and morality on several different levels. There is Dorothea Brooke, the novel’s main character, who inspires us with her virtue in the face of adversity. She is out of place in the materialistic society around her, longing to deeper meaning to her life. She is distressed by the social injustice she sees around her, and she longs to use her money for a noble purpose. We also encounter the young visionary Dr. Lydgate, whose dreams of building a free public hospital are undercut when he marries a superficial and materialistic woman. Irresponsible Fred Vincy is destroying his life and hurting others through his laziness and reckless loans, but he experiences financial redemption as the novel progresses. And Mr. Bulstrode, a legalistic and wealthy man who owns much of Middlemarch, is discovered to have built his riches on deceit and immorality. How far will he go to protect his wealth and reputation? This gem of a novel deals with issues of moral integrity and temptation without resorting to stock characters, and the virtue and redemption it portrays are truly inspiring.

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The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald. 1925.

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Wings of the Dove
Henry James. 1909.

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The Brothers Karamazov
Fyodor Dostoyevsky. 1879.
This classic tale of family rivalry and corruption centers on a duel between a vulgar father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, and his disreputable son Dmitri. Their competing claims to money and their rivalry over a woman fuel their growing hatred while Fyodor’s younger sons—the philosophical Ivan and the kind Alyosha—are snagged into helping settle the dispute. As the tale unfolds, the reader sees that there can be no happy resolution to a situation fueled by such sordid and base motives. This tale is a notorious example of corruption passing from father to son.

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Nicholas Nickleby
Charles Dickens. 1838-39.
Dickens’ entertaining novel illustrates that generosity pays and miserliness does not. When the young Nicholas Nickleby is left penniless upon his father’s death, he takes care of his mother and sister by going to work at a bleak boy’s school. He befriends a disabled orphan named Smike, and the poor Nickleby family eventually takes him into their home. Nickleby’s miserly Uncle Ralph, on the other hand, withholds financial help from the family and even attempts to harm Nicholas. In the end, the story’s kind and generous individuals—including the philanthropic Cheeryble brothers and the eccentric Crummles—are rewarded with good, while the oppressive Uncle Ralph comes to financial ruin.

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Silas Marner
George Eliot. 1861.
Silas Marner is a lonely outsider in a new community. Having been wrongfully expelled from his former town, he is treated with suspicion in his new village, and he is wary of entering into relationships again. He devotes himself to his work—weaving—and for 15 years he hoards away his earnings, gazing at his money every night. When his money is stolen, Marner is beside himself with grief, yet a few days later a small girl inexplicably turns up on his hearth. The girl, whom he names Eppie, becomes Marner’s redemption, giving him new reason to live and ultimately connecting him to the community. Marner discovers that he lost his gold and gained a far greater treasure—something that money could never have bought him.

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Plays

Timon of Athens
William Shakespeare. Ca. 1607-08.

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The Merchant of Venice
William Shakespeare. Ca. 1596-98.

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Short Stories

The Christmas Rifle
Ryan B. Anderson.
In this moving short story, a teenaged boy learns an unforgettable lesson from his father: that it truly is more blessed to give than to receive. After spending Christmas Eve 1881 moping because his family couldn’t afford the rifle he had requested, Matt Miles’ father calls him outside, loads up their sled, and brings him to the home of a neighbor, Widow Jensen. Matt sees that she and her three children have no firewood, no food and no shoes, all of which Matt and his father brought for them. The tears of gratitude on Widow Jensen’s face and the joy in her children’s eyes upon receiving these gifts give Matt a joy he never had known before. He understands this experience is more valuable than any rifle he could have received for Christmas.

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The Queen of Spades
Alexander S. Pushkin. 1834.

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A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens. 1843.

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The Gift of the Magi
O. Henry. 1906.

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Two Old Men
Leo Tolstoy. With foreword by Alonzo L. McDonald. The Trinity Forum Reading (Winter 1991).
This short story by one of Russia’s greatest authors illustrates that true worship of God involves the practical service of His humblest creatures. The tale opens as two men contemplate going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as the long overdue fulfillment of a vow. The well-to-do Efim has ready money for the trip, yet he is burdened by care for his possessions and loathe to leave them under the management of his son. Elisha, on the other hand, must sell his beehives at a loss in order to raise money for the journey, yet he desires to start immediately, confident that his beloved wife will manage the household well in his absence. On their journey together toward the Holy Land, the two men pass through a famine-devastated region. Thirsty, Elisha stops at a house along the way, assuring Efim that he will catch up later. However, upon entering the house, Elisha finds the occupants miserable with disease and starvation. Taking pity upon them, he feeds and cares for the family, even going so far as to redeem the mortgaged farm and purchase a horse for plowing. Having re-established the family’s means of self-provision, he sets off in pursuit of his friend. However, Elisha’s charitable activities have drained so much of his time and money that he decides he had best return home. Though disappointed that he was unable to fulfill his vow, Elisha relies upon God’s merciful forgiveness. In the meantime, Efim arrives in Jerusalem. He spends time touring the holy sites, but he always grudges the expense and fears robbery. Efim wondered what had become of his friend until he sees Elisha in the crowds around the holy sites, placed in the honored position closest to the relics. Though he tries to question Elisha, Efim can never quite reach his friend. In the end, he returns home only to find his affairs in disarray. Efim then realizes that while he may have fulfilled his vow in the literal sense, his friend Elisha had kept the promise more fully through his humble imitation of the love and compassion of the Christ the two old men had set out to worship. A brief biography of Tolstoy also helps to explain the characters and plot of this wonderful short story more fully.

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The Purchase of a Soul: A Tale of Transformation from ‘Les Misérables’
Victor Hugo. Translated by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee. Foreword by Alonzo L. McDonald. The Trinity Forum Readings (Winter 1995).
This excerpt from Victor Hugo’s (1802-85) masterpiece Les Misérables demonstrates the impact that one act of selfless generosity can yield on the life of another. The bishop of Digne lived a life of poverty in order that he might give everything possible to relieve the suffering of the poor. He only exempted two prized possessions from his charitable actions: a set of silverware and a pair of silver candlesticks. One night an unwanted convict appears on his doorstep in need of shelter for the night. This convict, Jean Valjean, just emerged from 19 years of penal service for stealing a loaf of bread, is embittered against the injustice of humanity and determined to take his revenge. Expecting to be shunned as usual, Valjean is surprised at the bishop’s acceptance and deferential treatment; the bishop seats the ex-convict to a dinner eaten with the prized silverware and gives him a freshly made bed for the night. Despite such generosity, Valjean steals the silverware and narrowly refrains from murdering his host. In the morning, the gendarmes return the culprit to the bishop’s door. One word from the churchman could send the convict back to the galleys for years of back-breaking servitude. Instead, the bishop demonstrates a mercy patterned after God’s example. Forgiving the ex-convict, he tells the gendarmes that the silverware was a gift. Furthermore, he admonishes Valjean for leaving part of his gift behind and hands the ex-convict the pair of silver candlesticks. However, the gift requires a response. The bishop informs Valjean that he has purchased Valjean’s soul for God, and that mercy has been shown in order that Valjean’s life might be redeemed and changed. The man formerly despised and feared has been given a fresh start in life. Departing, the hardened criminal engages in one last act of ingratitude, stealing a few coins from a defenseless boy on the road. However, a realization of the heinousness of his action in light of the mercy he has just received breaks his heart in remorse, and a transformation process begins. Included with the excerpt is a biographical sketch of Hugo that helps one understand more fully the characters and storyline.

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How Much Land Does a Man Need?
Leo Tolstoy. 1886. In “Twenty-Three Tales,” trans. L. and A. Maude. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1907.
The life of the peasant, though full of labor and far from luxury, is free from anxiety and the temptations of wealthy town life. Pahóm, a simple peasant, believed that with a little more land he could be so content that the devil himself could not unsettle him. But the devil worked Pahóm’s desire for land into his downfall. How much land would be enough? Pahóm soon learned that with more land came self-protection and hunger for even more land. When he was able to own 40 acres in the village he grew disturbed by other peasants disrupting his property so he moved to another village and bought more land. There he found that he could not grow as much wheat as he would like. He felt cramped and so he followed a traveler to where he could have as much land as he wanted. The price of the land there was 1,000 rubles for as much land as he could walk around in a day. Pahóm walked as fast and far as he could ... See also the abridged and illustrated edition for children. This resource is available as a booklet in the Trinity Forum Reading series, with foreword by Os Guinness.

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