On a street in a European city, a rich man muses upon the cause for his depression. Could it be anxiety about his business risks, asks his friend — since he had so much riding on his investments. No, replies the rich man: his fortune is large and diversified enough. So, probably just a melancholic temperament. Meanwhile, his closest friend comes to ask for a loan as he is seeing a beautiful woman. Facing a liquidity crunch, the rich man must borrow to help his friend. In the petulant way of the rich and entitled, he doesn’t like borrowing; and doesn’t like the moneylender, whom he abuses even while using his services.
The beautiful woman’s father has commodified her to be the prize in a contest. Suitors must choose from three boxes: gold, silver, and lead. “All that glitters is not gold,” says a message inside one of the boxes.
The Merchant of Venice is a many-layered story about money. Money does matter, says the play simply, and it would be untruthful to pretend that it does not: central to the plot is Bassanio’s need for money with which to court Portia. But the play is also about the nature of money itself and how it makes people behave — unctuous with the rich, abusive with the weak. It asks uncomfortable questions about the moral conflicts of wealth. Worth marking, too, that, at the end, it is a woman who speaks of something — “the quality of mercy” — that is above money. Unlike a financial transaction, such forgiveness “is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
Much of fiction is circumspect while talking about wealth and inequality. But not all. Jane Austen’s fiction, for example, has penetrating insight into the question of money. “If this man had not twelve thousand a year, he would be a very stupid fellow,” reflects Edmund Bertram on Mr. Rushworth in Mansfield Park; but the same novel casts its ironical gaze on the treatment of Fanny Price within the family, as well as on the subject of slavery in the sugar plantations of Antigua.
In the works of the great 19th century novelists, the novel takes on the function of social and political critique. The great moral concerns are inextricably linked with questions of wealth and fairness; at the same time, they remind us that money is not the only form of human transaction.
Or, to look at a work set in the 20th century: Elizabeth Jane Howard’s brilliant quintet The Cazalet Chronicle is about one wealthy British family during the Second World War. At first, it seems like escapist fantasy: the seemingly perfect family owns sprawling houses in London and the countryside, their chief worry seems to be about what to tell the cook to serve for the elaborate evening meals. As the narrative proceeds, the imperfections of their life begin to show: the man who cheats on his wife, the wife who regrets the ballet career she gave up for marriage, the father who bullies his son endlessly, the grownups who ignore the brutal effect of public school on boys. The rich, it seems, are just like everyone else: or at least, like everyone who has access to novels and the time to read them.
But when Rupert, the artist brother, returns after having served in the navy during the war, a sliver of a different reality comes through. He realises with a shock that other soldiers’ bodies are physically smaller. “Bandy legs, scrawny-looking, terrible teeth… They just looked as though they’d never had a chance to grow up to what they were originally meant to be.” This, he realises, is the physical effect of poverty.
While 20th century novels turned inward and became more self-conscious, rejecting the traditional role of being a mirror to society, genres like crime fiction, thrillers and noir took on the role of social critique. No one does irony quite like Raymond Chandler: “I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars” (The Big Sleep).
Some of the most powerful writing about the lives of the poor is to be found in short stories. Many years ago, in school, I read Munshi Premchand’s ‘Poos ki Raat’ for the first time. Even today, I can imagine the bitter cold of that night when the desperately poor farmer Halku huddles with his dog Jabra among the crops. The precarious nature of their lives: Will the crop survive? Will the fire go out? Will Halku lose his land? And, at the end, the farmer’s bitter relief at the loss of the crops: he will no longer have to sleep in the fields on a cold night.
One of the greatest stories ever written about money, and everything that is more valuable than it, is Chekhov’s masterpiece ‘Rothschild’s Fiddle’. Thoughts of money occupy every moment of the undertaker Yakov Ivanov’s miserable life. Even when playing the fiddle at weddings, he does so with foul grace. He is especially unkind to the Jewish flute-player who bears a millionaire’s name. It is only at the end, after the death of his wife, that Yakov realises how much he has missed out on all the other gifts of the world: beauty, goodness and joy. In his dying moments, Yakov asks for his fiddle to be given to the Jewish musician.
“And now everyone in the town asks where Rothschild got such a fine fiddle. Did he buy it or steal it? Or perhaps it had come to him as a pledge.”
But no: it was a gift.