In this Trumpian time of many rich people acting even greedier than usual, there’s some solace in reading novels that depict wealthy characters as unsympathetically as they often deserve.
Heck, too many get rich partly through ruthlessness and selfishness, while those who inherit a fortune (like America’s despicable White House occupant) are frequently spoiled and entitled — with little compassion for people forced to struggle economically. There are exceptions, of course; some of the ultra-monied are decent human beings.
To top things off, a large percentage of America’s rich support tax cuts they don’t need — cuts that reduce funding for social services many of the non-rich do need.
You’ll find unadmirable characters with lots of loot in many novels — including the last two I’ve been reading. Elizabeth Berg’s excellent young-adult book Joy School features a supporting character named Taylor who makes tons of money as a teen model yet she shoplifts clothes and skips out of restaurants without paying the bill. Taylor — a “friend” of the novel’s likable protagonist Katie, who’s trying to adapt to a new town she and her problematic father moved to after the mother dies — thinks the proceeds of petty crime are her due. Which reminds me of how Trump and his administration’s other corrupt multimillionaires use our hard-earned tax money for golf expeditions, first-class plane travel, fancy office furniture, and more.
Then there’s Jennifer Ryan’s terrific novel The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, which I’m currently in the middle of reading. Set in World War II England, the book in its early pages introduces “upper-class tyrant” Brigadier Winthrop — a nasty womanizer, scary husband, and bad father loathed by everyone in the village of Chilbury, where he lives in a huge house. After losing his one male heir to the war, he actually offers to pay a woman to steal a baby boy and substitute it for his future newborn if his pregnant wife gives birth to a girl.
Other wealthy jerks include the ensemble of white-collar thugs who run the shady law firm in John Grisham’s thriller The Firm.
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre has the rich and oh-so-pious Mr. Brocklehurst, who skimps so drastically on his Lowood institution that the girls who live there are freezing, practically starving, and in a number of cases dying. (Pictured with this blog post are a young Jane and the hypocritically evil Mr. B.)
In George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, the stubborn, hot-tempered, mill-owning dad Mr. Tulliver is not totally bad but certainly not very sympathetic. For one thing, he treats his unlikable son Tom much better than his nicer, smarter daughter Maggie.
The ambitious, social-climbing Undine Spragg doesn’t start out rich in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, but she becomes monied through multiple marriages — and remains as not-nice as ever.
There’s also the ruthless, politically ambitious Richard Griffen — the older husband of narrator/protagonist Iris in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.
Trump would be proud to have all of the above characters in his cabinet.
I’ve obviously named just a few characters. Who are some of the despicable rich people you remember most in fiction?
My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece is here.