When Rich Protagonists Aren’t Entitled Jerks

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.

184 thoughts on “When Rich Protagonists Aren’t Entitled Jerks

  1. Hi Dave,

    I’ve just finished reading The Pickwick Papers which I found to be a lot of fun. I’m not sure that the Pickwickians were rich, but they definitely had a lot of free time, and whenever I fantasise about winning lotto, it’s not ‘what would I do with all the money’, it’s ‘what would I do with all that time’!

    A very witty piece last week. Of course I’m horrified to know that Roe v Wade has been overturned. Maybe the government is just trying to make sure they don’t run out of school children to be shot at? It’s beyond disgusting to know that kids have no protection once they actually become people.

    Unfortunately I don’t have anything to add for this week’s article. I think Shakespeare’s plays are the only thing I’ve read older than the 1800s. Though Robinson Crusoe is on my list.

    Mmm, taken me two weeks to finally pen this, and now I see someone already mentioned the Dickens novel. Lucky you have no rules on this page 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Susan. Thank you! “The Pickwick Papers” is indeed a lot of fun — perhaps the most fun Dickens novel. And — yes! — having a lot of money can mean having a lot more time to do what one wants. An excellent point.

      And a great point about the “pro-life” movement in the U.S. being very focused on being pro-fetus but having little concern about what happens to babies and their parents after the birth. Such hypocrites. “Maybe the government is just trying to make sure they don’t run out of school children to be shot at?” — amazing, depressingly hilarious line!

      Like

  2. Dave how about Mr. Atticus Finch in Harper lee`s ” To kill a mockingbird”.

    Atticus Finch to me was known for his compassion, thoughtfulness, honesty, and morality. Atticus strongly advocates that people are equal regardless of their background and skin color.
    A single Father raised two of his motherless children Jem and Scout. .

    Yes Atticul was not wealthy but wealthy in his mind.

    I am writing this because I know Dave you did not read ” Go Set a Watchman “, on which we discussed extensively.
    The book I wish was never published. Ms. Lee was senile then and her Atorney pushed her to consent to publish the book.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Bebe, for the excellent mention! Atticus may not have been super-wealthy, but I guess he was relatively affluent as a lawyer. And, yes, from everything I’ve heard he was a nicer guy in “To Kill a Mockingbird” than he was in “Go Set a Watchman.” SO admirable in “TKAM.”

      Liked by 2 people

  3. So many great comments here, not that I have read all.
    I had this question in the back of my mind for days now.
    Still I can only think of Prince Escalus, in Romeo and Juliette. It’s a play, but..
    Anyway… who is the main protagonist in Romeo and Juliette?
    I don’t see one.
    Prince Escalus is “a” protagonist. He seeks peace, and the better good of the citizens of Verona.
    I adore this character.

    After that… Bruce Wayne in Batman is a rich/good guy, but that is comic book literature. Does that count?

    Great topic, Dave!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Resa! 🙂 I agree about the comments — so many excellent ones, as always. 🙂

      Very nice Shakespeare and Batman mentions! Heck, Batman has been in novels — well, graphic novels, in addition to comic books and of course movies.

      By the way, I knew and wrote about cartoonist Jerry Robinson, who named Robin and created The Joker while he was a teenager working on the early Batman comics 80-some years ago.

      Liked by 2 people

      • How fab! I know you were a critic or reviewed comic characters …. something… so I am not surprised you are connected to that hierarchy.
        I think this might be part of why you like my “Gowntoons”.
        You have a particularly special insight.
        I’m so happy to have met you …out here…. in space… in life!!!!!!!

        Liked by 2 people

        • Thank you, Resa! Happy to have met you in “the blogosphere” as well!

          I covered newspaper syndication (including cartooning) for many years for a magazine, which gave me a chance to interview many creators. I didn’t cover comic books much, but Jerry Robinson also did newspaper cartoons, which is how I met him. He lived in NYC, a subway ride from my magazine’s office, so I spent many hours at his apartment/studio. When Jerry got the idea for The Joker around 1940 or so, he looked for and found a deck of playing cards to help himself make the first sketches.

          Liked by 2 people

          • That is fascinating!
            You know, I always thought the Joker was from a Joker!
            All those original Batman nemesis were brilliant.
            There’s way too many superheroes & villains now. Lol! That’s why I do Princess Blue Holly, the super hero who changes her outfits as per the crime occasion. AGMs in gowns getting into trouble. It’s a mockery & it’s fun!

            Liked by 2 people

            • You thought correctly, Resa! Impressive!

              Yes, those Batman villains were/are great, with most created before there were many other superheroes and their antagonists. (Among the earliest costumed superheroes was The Phantom, from Lee Falk’s 1930s-created newspaper comic strip, who predated Batman and Superman.)

              Princess Blue Holly is a terrific character and a terrific “conceit”!

              Liked by 2 people

              • Thank you, Dave! Not everyone gets what I do on Art Gowns, and that’s cool. I adore my pals who do. PBH is one of my joys. Of course there is an unfinished adventure… and just chatting here today has given me the ideas to start drawing the finale. What fun this will be.
                OH, I just finished … 5 minutes ago…. my new Art Gown. It will be dedicated to Shey! I’m so excited!!!!!!!!!
                Of course now I have to clean up (what a mess I made) then take pics, then edit pics, then make the post. I’m thinking 7 -10 days.
                Love your use of “conceit”!

                Liked by 2 people

  4. OTOH:

    “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”– Matthew 19:24

    “Whose name is written as in pitch
    Upon the unrelenting foreheads of the rich,
    Satan, at last have mercy on our suffering!”– Charles Baudelaire

    “Behind every great fortune is a great crime.”– Honore de Balzac

    “The rich are the scum of the earth in every country.– GK Chesterton

    “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”– F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, jhNY, for those GREAT quotes. I found myself nodding vigorously several times in agreement. 🙂 Yes, while some very wealthy people are decent sorts, the vast majority are…um…problematic.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The admirable rich man I offer is a fictitious character sent out into the world by Samuel Johnson in 1759, in a philosophical novel titled “The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia”. In anticipation and preparation for his eventual ascendance to the throne, the prince spends his youth surrounded by abundance in Happy Valley, a place where, as a means of preserving his innocence, he is also scrupulously shielded from those aspects of life– sickness, poverty, age– which tend to cause the impressionable mind to concentrate on mortality and morality, topics that clash with the intent and practice of those to whom his care and instruction has been entrusted.

    Yet the prince is not content in Happy Valley, and eventually finds his way out of his paradisical prison,in the company of his sister, her attendant, and his philosopher-teacher Imlac. The prince et al intend to find happiness, and wander far and wide in search of it, principally through modern Egypt. Wandering convinces the party to abandon their search, as it is nowhere to be found, except fleetingly. They return to Happy Valley, wiser, certain now their quest was itself a folly, in that happiness, conceptually, is a state– and there are no states in a world of constant flux.

    The wikipedia entry for the book notes that” Rasselas” shares its publication date with Voltaire’s “Candide”,a coincidence of contrasts, and includes this observation by Jose Luis Borges:

    “This idea of a prince condemned to a happy imprisonment has resonance – Johnson himself was probably ignorant of it – in the legend of Buddha, though it would have reached him through the story ofBarlam and Josaphat, adopted as the subject of one of Lope de Vega’s comedies: the idea of a prince who has been brought up surrounded with artificial happiness.”

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, jhNY! Sounds like a very interesting Samuel Johnson book, described very interestingly by you! And that’s quite a publishing coincidence of “The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia” and Voltaire’s “Candide” — the latter of which I love and find very readable for an 18th-century work. Finally, your mention of Jose Luis Borges reminded me of how much I love Borges’ short stories.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. ” Gora”, the epic Novel by Rabindranat Tagore was translated into multiple languages,Dave, Gora is perhaps the most popular literary character Tagore created by the same name. Gora was far from being rich but was rich in mind and his transformation was unique.

    Gora comes to the front because of his metamorphosis from a staunch Hindu to a liberal. He breaks out of the prison created in his own mind by himself and the nineteenth century predominant Brahminical society.

    Gora was an idealist and an optimist. He was a compassionate soul , who believed all evils could be uprooted if everyone embraced Hinduism
    .He was also very close to his Mother.

    Nationalism, especially religion based nationalism, is something that we are all forced to ponder over today in our current political environment. Thus, to read a story set in late 19th century Bengal written by Rabindranath Tagore

    Dave you would have loved the book but I would not ask you to read any translation, because I have no clue how they would be.

    Fast forward..How his transformation to a liberal happened ?
    I read the book many times but long ago…,

    Don`t remember how Gora exactly and when discovered himself…his Mother kept the secret.
    YES he was his Mother`s Son, but one destitute westerner delivered Gora whom she took in her arms.
    Gora`s transformation was monumental and beautiful !!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Samuel Pickwick of Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers seems to have access to more-than-sufficient funds, but seems to be a pleasant sort, if a little disconnected. The Pickwickians’ friend Mr. Wardle has a lot of money but likes to share, too, particularly at Christmastime.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Don! Excellent mentions! Dickens definitely created a bunch of affluent characters, some of them fairly sympathetic, in addition to his less-affluent ones. Even Scrooge, after he went through his ghost-induced transformation. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. At some point, you’d think most wealthy individuals would discover those things their money can’t buy such as all those virtues we so admire, i.e. kindness, goodness, sweetness all sincere and free of artifice; however, you can’t buy the wisdom it takes to know how truly valuable they are so there’s the fly in the ointment. I’d say my rich protagonist which isn’t a jerk would be Vonnegut’s Eliot Rosewater. And I’ll add one of KV’s priceless quotes which may ease our suffering re what we are now experiencing in our country and around the globe. “Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let the pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you! Very well said! One does wonder why — and lament that — there are so many wealthy people who are jerks and not more who are good, kind, generous, etc. And that’s a wonderful quote from Vonnegut. Not sure he personally lived the sentiments in that quote as much as he could have, but I’m sure he tried.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Guess it was difficult for him to be soft and not be angry and/or hate having been a POW and going through the bombing of Dresden, but yes I agree he strived. WWII really did a job on a lot of men who stuffed their feelings and carried on. I mean they were very young at the time, almost kids. I remember one time my father was recalling the time he served in the navy in the Pacific theater and those memories made him weep. Its a shock to watch your father, a strong and vital man, openly cry. I think I lost my own trust in the world being a safe place after that. *sigh* Susi (anonymous)

        Liked by 2 people

        • So true, Susi, that being in a war can scar a person (emotionally and/or physically) for life. And Vonnegut experienced more than the average soldier — who were/are indeed very young in most cases. Moving and sobering and heartbreaking to hear about your father’s reaction to his time in the military. 😦

          Liked by 1 person

    • I absolutely believe the world is a beautiful place, I take time to enjoy the ocean or a beautiful full moon, cute children enjoying themselves so innocent. I’m fully aware the world is also full of ma So i try to tread carefully but still they are cunning and maliscious predators out there and that does make me somewhat angry. I wouldnt say it normally ruins my day or anything but ive been impacted by these predators more than once and as young as a 4 yo child, so i feel i have something to be angry about if id like. I find most often I focus on my children who are grown and my grandchildren and most importantly I learn new things every day I become more knowledgeable and I love knowledge. I soak it up. The more you know the better off you will be in any and all situations I feel. You would not believe what I’m studying right now and I’m not sharing it with the world. Ahaha

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi ty for yor interest in my website. I appreciate it. Hope you are well! I also love books, learning and reading. I find I study most things on my devices now a days. Just look up a subject or book on it and I’m an expert quickly. Anyway.thanks again.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Hi Dave, when considering this topic, the reading material of my youth comes to mind more than adult books I’ve read. Richie Rich (the poor little rich boy) was a comic I loved as a kid. I had a whole stack of them and spend a lot of pocket money buying the new ones. There were also a number of Enid Blyton books which featured kids from wealthy homes that I loved. The Famous Five was one series. Those children all attended private schools so their parents had money. There was also the Mallory Towers series, books about a private girls school in the UK. Interestingly enough, not all of Enid Blyton’s characters were wealthy, the children in The Faraway Tree came from a poor family and their mother took in washing to earn money. There is also Hercule Poirot who was a wealthy man and very entertaining to read about.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I’m very glad you enjoyed a Gentleman in Moscow! I just read Towles’ new one earlier this summer, “the Lincoln Highway” which is also very good. As for other rich characters – Mr. Darcy always comes to mind 🙂 Although you start off not wanting to like him in the book! Can’t really discount jolly old Mr. Bingley from the same story either! 🙂 A novel I really enjoyed about a woman with inherited wealth/status is “American Princess” by Stephanie Marie Thornton. It tells the little known story of Alice Roosevelt (Teddy’s daughter) and I definitely found myself falling in love with her!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, M.B.! I definitely plan on reading more of Towles if my library has him.

      Yes, Mr. Darcy — absolutely. And while I haven’t read “American Princess,” I’ve been a fan of the free-thinking Alice Roosevelt from nonfiction stuff I’ve seen about her.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Hi – this is an interesting post. I loved A Gentleman in Moscow and agree with your comments. Also, I always wonder what people think when I say I love P.G. Wodehouse’s books. I know it’s very upper crust, but his books are so funny and Bertie is an endearing character, despite his wealth. I’m going to have to go back and think about The Age of Innocence and Archer – I remember him, but not everything.

    Liked by 7 people

    • Thank you, Michael! I’m only halfway through “A Gentleman in Moscow,” but I gather from what appears at the start of the novel that Rostov several years before expressed some written thoughts sympathetic to the Bolshevik cause — enough to later get house arrest over execution. And of course there wouldn’t be a book if he didn’t live many years in the hotel. 🙂

      Not sure I’d want Bertie Wooster as a friend, but I do find him entertaining. The “servant” Jeeves is obviously the brains in the household!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I’ll take Protagonist Vampires for $1000, Alex! Vampires always seem to have amassed centuries worth of wealth. Coming to mind are the Cullens from the Twilight series and Lestat and others from Anne Rice’s novels.

    Liked by 5 people

  14. How about Rabindranath Tagore , Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1913.
    Was born in wealth from a well to do family, but gave it all up to establish a University , he called Santiniketan ( Land of Peace) .
    The school had an open air concept .

    Tagore also wanted to attract students from all over the World, with Art School. Japanese and Chinese cultures. and so much more

    Liked by 3 people

  15. I am delighted that you are enjoying A Gentleman in Moscow. I read that Amor Towles’s inspiration for the novel was his experience staying at luxury hotels, specifically, a hotel in Geneva, Switzerland. It seems that there were many permanent guests. For those who follow The Duchess of Cornwall’s reading room Instagram, Amor Towles was interviewed on how the book came into being. As you know, I love back stories.

    I have often considered the idea of how our psychology relates to stereotypes such as wealthy characters. I confess that I did not like Jay Gatsby, although I recognize that there are many underlying themes in this book that address, among many things, class status. It seems that there is an element of “just rewards” when it comes to wealthy characters, such as Jay Gatsby and Edward Fairfax Rochester in Jane Eyre. I think that, in the end, we want these characters to be human.

    Liked by 7 people

  16. I loved the story of Sara Crewe in ‘A Little Princess’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1905). Born into affluence, 7 year old Sara holds a compassionate and gracious attitude towards every single other character, even the horrible ones, before and after she loses her wealth. She is kind, clever, and seemingly has it all in the first chapters of the book.

    Readers in 2022 one might suppose she’s a character written with too few flaws to be relatable – plus, she embraces the system where equality exists as a given, instead of truely rejecting it (there even is one line where she says she “scatters largess” which is quite condescending toward the less fortunate people to whom she “gives”).

    But I think the author was writing within the bounds of what she knew in the early 20th century. Growing up I felt Sara was the sort of character who represented the “good” in humanity and the world. Could be the childhood nostalgia talking but I still like her!

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, talus more! That’s a wonderful example, and very well described. Sara is a role model for us all. 🙂 Sometimes characters can indeed seem too good to be true, but it’s kind of refreshing to encounter them here and there as an antidote to all the nasty types in literature and real life.

      Liked by 6 people

  17. I just got hold of ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ to read on holiday. It’s been on that list for a while now so am looking forward to reading it – although it wasn’t easy to get hold of!
    I’ve been reading Poirot and I suppose he’s got money – although it’s never explicitly explained where it all comes from. He’s quite affable really although I wonder if it would be annoying knowing that he’s always right?
    Rudolph Rassendyll in ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ also has money. He’s prepared to go to all lengths in order to ensure a kingdom gets the ruler it ought to have, so quite a decent chap.

    Liked by 9 people

    • Thank you, Endless Weekend! Two excellent mentions of novels — one of which I’ve read (“Pride and Prejudice”). A number of Jane Austen’s characters are definitely somewhat or very affluent, with some decent sorts (such as Anne Elliot of “Persuasion”) amid the jerks and buffoons.

      “The French Revolution’s Batman” — nice turn of phrase!

      Liked by 6 people

      • Thank you, Dave, I wasn’t sure how purists from either side would take that analogy 😁 🦇

        Emma’s George Knightley stands out for his compassion and gallantry, even when he’s jealous, but not being as well off as many of Jane Austen’s other characters I had to go with Mr. Darcy (ok, for other reasons, too…).

        Liked by 4 people

        • Yes, Mr. Darcy is appealing on more than one level. 🙂 And, yes again, there are definitely various gradations of wealth among Austen’s characters — including “poor” relation Fanny Price who’s not actually super-poor in “Mansfield Park.”

          Liked by 4 people

          • I credit Jane Austen’s wonderful writing style that her pragmatism and laser-like focus on money is charming instead of bothersome. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” I smile every time I start reading that book!

            Liked by 3 people

      • The natural alliance of nobility across national borders, working to save our betters from rough handling by the unbridled and unruly underclasses– but yep, also their Batman, in that our Batman was the scion of privileged wealth who acted on his notion of higher justice than law, as did the Pimpernel.

        It is my unresearched opinion that the French middle and upper-middle classes worked themselves into a thorough revulsion of the perceived excesses of the mob in the decades after the revolution, and used that revulsion as a shield of unconcern for the lower orders onto which they projected these excesses, when in fact, a good many in the dark days of Robespierre and Danton et al, were, like their leaders, well above the proletariat they had bestirred to revolt.

        And certainly, there were excesses to decry, but not to the excess they were decried by reactionary and conservative voices who were never the allies or sympathizers of any new order, voices which were heard throughout the rest of Europe, not least of all in England, most famously expressed by Edmund Burke, of whose conclusions Thomas Paine famously remarked, “He mourns the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.”

        In the revolution’s aftermath, the rise of Napoleon came about because the crowned heads of Europe, England’s among them,, sent armies into France to re-establish royalty over the new republic. He proved a most able, fearless and ruthless field commander against them, and was eventually rewarded with a co-consulship, which he also conquered, and perversely, or inevitably, went on to take upon himself an emperor’s crown.

        I count the Scarlet Pimpernel as a fictitious embodiment of a sentiment for noble, if not royal, retrenchment– but the readership was generally solid middle class, and whatever the underlying political sentiment, there is much intrigue, adventure and excitement to be had within the pages of that series.

        Liked by 1 person

          • I meant to cite Charles Nodier and Alexander Dumas, who each wrote things that bespeak an deep unease with the revolutionary period and mob action, years after.

            I might have also mentioned that the guillotine, that instrument of horror under the power of the mob, was still in use, when sentencing demanded, under authority of the French state, through all forms of government, till the 1950’s.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Of course mob action can be revolutionary or anti-revolutionary — with the latter often ordered, encouraged, funded by the rich and powerful.

              Yikes! I didn’t know the guillotine was still used until relatively recently!

              Like

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