What can literature teach us about handling money?

A Wall Street Journal writer recently decided to seek out the financial lessons embedded in works by classic 19th-century authors like Tolstoy and Flaubert. It turns out that the great writers knew a thing or two about money.

What can novels like 'Anna Karenina' and 'Robinson Crusoe' teach us about money? Plenty, it turns out.

What do business books and 19th-century literature – seemingly polar opposites – have in common?

A lot, it turns out.

Money – and the social changes its possession or lack thereof effects – forms the backbone of so many works of literature that one Wall Street Journal (WSJ) writer decided to read the classics with an eye toward extracting financial lessons.

The result was a surprisingly insightful and timeless primer in understanding money. 

“Money wreaks so much havoc in Victorian novels – arriving or departing almost magically in the opening pages – that they provide a kind of survey course in what not to do,” Jeremy Olshan writes in a piece titled “Novel Financial Lessons from Dickens, Flaubert, and Tolstoy.”

Writing about financial crises, he quotes Columbia University comparative literature professor Nicholas Dames, who said, “It became one of the offices of the novel to explain how these things could happen. The narratives teach us how no one is exempt from financial peril, even if personally blameless.”

Courtesy of WSJ's Olshan, the following are four lessons for recession-weary 21st-century readers from the pages of 19th-century literature.

Read Dafoe to understand money

Money is simply a means to an end – not the end in and of itself. To understand this concept, Olshan turns to Robinson Crusoe, who literally and figuratively missed the boat. After his ship is smashed on the shores of a deserted island, Crusoe scavenges for anything that might be useful in surviving island life – tools, food, alcohol – until he happens upon a cache of gold coins. 

“I smiled to myself at the sight of the money: ‘O drug!’ said I, aloud, ‘what art though good for?... I have no manner of use for thee.’” And then he scoops up the money happily.

“This is precisely what the financial world gets wrong,” Don Phillips, Morningstar’s head of global research, tells the WSJ. “Intellectually, we understand that there are more important pursuits, that money is nothing but a means to an end – to support the lifestyle we want – and the goal in itself. But Wall Street turns it into a game in which we have to amass bigger and bigger piles than the ones we already have.”

Read Flaubert before swiping that credit card

Trickster merchant Monsieur Lheureux entices Emma Bovary with fancy wares she cannot afford, much like high-end ads tempt  21st-century shoppers. When she purchases the lovely wares on credit, Bovary, like so many of us, ultimately sinks into debt, and in the drama of the novel, drowns her troubles in a bottle of arsenic.

Lesson learned.

Read Dickens to learn the difference between saving and hoarding

“Bah! Humbug!” That classic line from the mouth of Ebenzer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” epitomizes the miserly ways of some modern-day scrooges who are as reluctant to enjoy a penny of their wealth as Scrooge was in his time.

The WSJ talks to a pair of financial psychologists who view the three ghosts as three therapists who help Scrooge – and insightful readers – understand how to responsibly enjoy his savings while he (or we) can.

Read Tolstoy before heading to the car dealership

Is Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” a novel about adultery? Pshaw, says Olshan, it’s a manual for negotiating with car dealers!

“At one point, Oblonsky, a Moscow nobleman, visits his friend Levin's country estate, announces that he's just sold a parcel of land, and asks whether he got a good deal,” Olshan writes. “Levin simply asks, ‘Did you count the trees?’ Oblonsky didn't – but Levin assures him that his buyer did.”

“Only a fool buys or sells something without knowing its true worth,” Olshan writes. “That sounds simple – but how often do we sit with the car salesman without knowing the real value of the car?”

We love this clever reading of classics we thought we knew. Who knows what financial lessons are lurking in the pages of Austen, Brontë, and Dostoyevsky?

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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