When I see wealthy people depicted in novels, my first impulse is to dislike them. After all, while some people make their own fortunes and don’t hurt others doing so, many other people are rich because they inherited money or because they’re ruthless employers. But occasionally my defenses are beaten down and I really like a very affluent character.
An example — in a novel I’m currently reading — is Count Alexander Rostov of Amor Towles’ superb A Gentleman in Moscow. Rostov evokes our sympathy not only because he’s under house arrest in a Moscow hotel after the Russian Revolution but because he’s also smart, talented, patient, charming, good-natured, and nice to everyone in all walks of life. Plus Rostov has a history of not being a total apologist for Russia’s pre-revolution aristocracy — which is why he was sentenced to house arrest rather than execution at the hands of the newly empowered Bolsheviks.
Other upper-class protagonists impossible to hate? Bertie Wooster of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels and stories is an idle sort but often rather endearing — as well as funny and loyal. Also likable is financially comfortable son-of-a-judge Archie Weir in Robert Louis Stevenson’s unfinished novel Weir of Hermiston.
It helps us feel sympathy for wealthy characters when they go through difficulties that money can’t solve or completely solve. One example is the title character in Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth who’s an automobile magnate but also going through later-in-life marital troubles. Newland Archer of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is a wealthy young lawyer engaged to bland socialite May Welland before becoming conflicted by getting romantically interested in the unconventional countess Ellen Oleska. Isabel Archer (hmm…that last name again) of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady is an heiress but seems like a genuinely nice person who makes a very bad marital choice.
Oh, and Edmond Dantes becomes super-rich in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo but had to endure enormous suffering before a chance meeting in prison eventually made him a non-blood-related heir to a fortune — which he put to good use getting revenge on the people who framed him.
There are also novels featuring moneyed queens and kings whose behavior is often nasty but sometimes decent. For instance, King Louis XI of Sir Walter Scott’s Quentin Durward is Machiavellian and King Louis XIII of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers is petty but the eventual king Aragorn in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is brave and admirable. Of course, Aragorn wasn’t rich and not living the royal life during most of the trilogy. 🙂
Wealthy fictional characters you’ve liked?
My 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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about expanded library hours in my town and other topics — is here.