Where there is wealth there are assholes. This is the overriding message we get from stories in general, be they for children or adults. However, sometimes by working hard a hero can become rich. In a Cinderella story goodness leads naturally to riches, in a Rhonda Byrne The Secret sort of bullshit idea. Characters in other stories are eventually revealed to be nice people despite being rich. Sometimes in children’s books an adult reader can see perfectly well that there is a discrepancy in income between the parents of the children, but child readers themselves won’t necessarily pick up all the clues on that. Kids are kids in the end.
The Pursuit Of Wealth As A Story Goal
Of the three principal preoccupations of adult fiction — sex, money and death — the first is absent from classic children’s literature and the other two either absent or much muted. Love in these stories may be intense but it is romantic rather than sensual, at least overtly. […] Money is a motive in children’s literature, in the sense that many stories deal with a search for treasure of some sort. These quests, unlike real ones, are almost always successful, though occasionally what is found in the end is some form of family happiness, which is declared by the author and the characters to be a “real treasure.” Simple economic survival, however, is almost never the problem; what is sought, rather, is a magical (sometimes literally magical) surplus of wealth.
— Alison Lurie, The Subversive Power Of Children’s Literature
A lot of children’s literature is set in a kind of utopia where the characters never have to worry about money. Food is always there. A classic example of that is The Wind In The Willows.
Storytelling Technique: Rich and Poor Together
One technique writers use to add interest and conflict to a story is to put wealthy and poor people in the same place. You’ll find this is done at some point in almost every TV show. Movies do it too.
Wealth Versus Poverty In Stories For Adults
Tomato Red — the love interest with the red hair feels a grave sense of injustice that they live in a mobile shack whereas other people in their town live in mansions. This fuels her desire to get out of that town, and justifies what she does in order to achieve it.
Schitt’s Creek — The Rose family have already lost all their fortune by the time they hit Schitt’s Creek — a hole of a town the father bought the son for a birthday joke. They are now forced to live there among the regular folk. They may have no money but they have brought their rich tastes and attitudes with them. This makes for plenty of conflict.
Animal Kingdom — J’s druggie mother dies of an overdose. At seventeen years of age he has only ever known poverty. But now he is taken in by his grandmother and uncles, who are running a criminal empire. These are the sorts of people who leave wads of cash lying around.
Nashville — Juliette Barnes is now rich, having earned oodles of money as a country pop singer, but she has come from nothing. She grew up in a trailer park. The writers make sure the audience is taken back there, to explain some of Juliette’s back story. Juliette still has her mother in her life, which allows the audience to see rich and poor rubbing up against each other. Other characters undergo a rags to riches Cinderella story as part of the show.
Upstairs Downstairs — Is the ultimate in rich and not rich rubbing up against each other. Downton Abbey is very similar. These shows are about class differences. For some of the characters real destitution is one wrong-doing away. Even the mighty can fall.
Coronation Street — Even in a working class Northern town where everyone lives from month to month, we still have characters like Mike Baldwin who owns the factory, or Dev Alahan who owns the corner shop. Though these men are far from fabulously wealthy, there is still enough of a discrepancy in wealth to provide interest.
I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore — our modest main characters make a visit to an ostentatious house with massive lawn ornaments under the guise of cops. When the lawn ornaments get broken this provides some catharsis for the audience because these rich people are not good and the main character is very sympathetic.
Fargo — our main dude has a rich father-in-law, which causes all sorts of existential male angst, and therefore the impetus to make real money of his own.
Lonesome Dove — Clara’s husband has been a successful horse wrangler. Not only this, he married the love of Gus’s life. Larry McMurtry takes us to Clara’s ranch to make sure we get a taste of The Path Not Taken. Could Gus have had all this, if only he weren’t such a wanderer, basically married to Call?
Gilmore Girls — This community offers us the full spectrum of wealth (well, right down to middle-class, anyhow). We have Emily and Richard at the top, with all their cronies. Next we have successful small business owners such as the owner of Doose’s market, and eventually Lorelai and Sooki themselves. Then there are the people who work for others.
Wealth Versus Poverty In Stories For Children
It’s interesting to see how wealth discrepancy is handled in stories for children. In picture books there is very rarely any social commentary on money. Olivia (by Ian Falconer) lives in a big New York City apartment and must therefore have mega wealthy pig parents, but because she goes through similar dramas as many (white) kids, the reader is not encouraged to mull that one over.
The work of Frances Hodgson Burnett — The phrase ‘rags to riches’ is commonly used to describe an arc in which the main character lives in poverty at the beginning of the story and in wealth by the end. But more commonly in the Victorian era the plot is one in which a disadvantaged person, often a child, is restored to the wealth and positin which are thought to be his/her natural birthright. Even Cinderella isn’t a genuine rags to riches tale — Cinderella must have been at least middle class to begin with or she would not have had those middle class relatives.
Ivy + Bean — Ivy seems to come from a richer family. She has a big bedroom with a craft table set up. Money is not mentioned. It may just be that Ivy’s mother is super organised and particular, and likes to dress her little girl in fancy frocks. But an adult reader assumes some discrepancy in income between the households. Ivy is originally depicted as a prissy, unsympathetic character, but after the first book the two girls realise they have a lot in common and become firm best friends. Not only that, Ivy is revealed to be every bit as devious as Bean. The message: Some kids are rich, others not so much, but they’re all just kids in the end.
Wimpy Kid, Dog Days — Holly Elizabeth Hills is one of Greg’s classmates and also an unrequited love interest. Greg tries to impress her but can’t. Her family is shown to be wealthy, playing on the old folk tales in which lovers are kept apart due to differences in class and status. The sister is portrayed as tyrannical, spoiled and selfish. The message: While being rich doesn’t necessarily make a girl undesirable, the existence of the sister conveys the idea that the riches themselves have contributed to her personality.
Harry Potter — It’s impossible to consider the ideology of wealth in the Harry Potter series without thinking of the rags to riches tale undergone by the author herself. In the Harry Potter universe the Black family is one of the mega wealthy. But Sirius Black was not born wealthy — he inherited 12 Grimmauld Place and this made him rich. He is fairly generous with his wealth. Gilderoy Lockhart is worth quite a bit. Harry Potter himself is also rich, especially for a twelve year old. He has inherited. It is extrapolated that after the series ends Harry goes on to become very rich. The Malfoy family and Bellatrix Lestrange are also wealthy. A lot of these rich characters are intermarried and related, keeping wealth in the family, in aristocratic tradition. The message: You don’t have to be all that great of a person to be born rich, but if you’re good like Harry you may well become rich through hard work, humility and dedication to a cause.
The Hundred Dresses — This book is about a modest, middle-class town whose children are strangers to poverty. Until one day, that is. These days it’s hard to tell the poorest children (in real life) by looking at them — clothing has come down in price and decent chainstore clothing is available cheaply from second hand stores. But in earlier eras clothing was prohibitively expensive and it was easy to tell the poor children at a glance. The message: Don’t judge people on their appearance. There is always more going on than you realise. Show compassion for those less fortunate.
Strays Like Us — Molly Moberly has been poor all her life and is even now living in poverty with a great aunt, but it turns out she has a rich grandmother who will now be her benefactor, of sorts. The grandmother is a lonely hypochondriac who won’t leave her bed. The message: If you have a destitute personality, money can’t buy happiness. You’re better off being modestly poor but mentally well.