Once a single day to enjoy early Christmas deals the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday has evolved into a colossal, week-long (or longer) shopping event with retailers marketing to the masses well in advance of Thanksgiving. It’s hard to keep a spirit of gratitude for what you already have once the ads start popping up everywhere. Sometimes it is more effective to read a story about the damaging effects of spending money than it is simply to read statistics or opinions; without ever expressly saying so, the following stories share why it is important to treat our money with respect.
“One Thousand Dollars” by O. Henry
This clever, beautiful little story not only demonstrates the power a person with money has to do good or ill, but it reveals what genuine, selfless love looks like.
When a young man named Gillian is left $1,000 by his late uncle, he spurns the money as being an insultingly small amount, as he knows his uncle was worth half a million dollars and had no other heirs. However, a friend reminds him that he can still do a lot of good with that sum, that he can change—and even save—lives with the money, if only he looks at it the right way. He tells him, “A thousand dollars would buy pure milk for one hundred babies during June, July, and August and save fifty of their lives . . . It would furnish an education to an ambitious boy.”
Gillian goes through a sort of change of heart as he starts to focus on what—and who—is really important in his life. The ending was truly not what I was expecting, and I was deeply moved by the seemingly-selfish character of Gillian. You can read the story here.
“After the Race” by James Joyce
Taken from Joyce’s book of short stories, Dubliners, “After the Race” tells the story of a group of lively young men who have just finished a car race and are driving back to Dublin to celebrate their victory. One young man, Jimmy, not only enjoys the “high” of the race, but the prestige of his company.
Focusing on Jimmy, this short story reveals the effects of money and the desire for the status that comes with the possession of money. Jimmy has little respect for money, as his father has always given him more than he ever needed, and while it may seem like he “has it all,” it is eventually revealed that he certainly does not.
Although this story has nothing to do with shopping or directly spending money, it has everything to do with regret over spending money poorly. It serves as an example of what may happen if we allow money to master us, rather than being master of our money. Even if you win a few races, you won’t necessarily emerge a “winner.” You can read Joyce’s short story here.
“Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Published in 1922, this short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald explores what it means to chase after the American Dream—and how that dream can fall flat. His short stories and novels all touch upon this idea of the illusory quality of the American Dream—that is, the idea that success and wealth (and subsequent happiness) are within reach for anyone in America who truly wants them.
Of course, this dream is just that—a dream, as revealed not only by Fitzgerald’s works but by his own unhappy life chasing money and success. In “Winter Dreams,” the protagonist, Dexter, a man from humble beginnings, is able to climb his way to success with a couple of smart financial choices and investments. Once he gets to the top, he meets a very wealthy, beautiful woman named Judy Jones, and he is immediately and completely smitten with her. She toys with his emotions and those of dozens of other men, liking to keep them close but always at a safe distance.
Although Judy seemingly has everything a young woman could hope for and dream of, she is decidedly unhappy. In one particularly telling scene, she blurts out to Dexter: “I’m more beautiful than anybody else . . . why can’t I be happy?” While it is never bluntly stated, it nevertheless becomes perfectly clear why she—and Dexter—find happiness to be so fleeting. You can read Fitzgerald’s full story here.
“Double Birthday” by Willa Cather
Willa Cather is one of my very favorite authors, as her beautiful prose is always full of realistic images of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American life and her signature nostalgic tone. While her novels (such as My Antonia and O Pioneers!) focus on what frontier life on the Great Plains was like, her short stories do explore other settings and a variety of different characters.
The setting in “Double Birthday” is Pittsburgh in the 1920s. The main characters share the same name and the same birthday: Albert is turning 55 on the same day that his Uncle Albert is turning 80. Neither man has ended up with much worldly success or great fortune, for various reasons, and an old friend, Judge Hammersley, looks down upon them for not “amounting to more.” But while the Judge looks at them with disdain for not keeping (or increasing) their family’s wealth, his daughter Margaret has quite a different perspective.
Despite their fall from wealth, Albert and “Uncle Doctor” Albert seem quite content—and even happy—to be exactly where they are, in their shared little house with their piano and books, and this is an observation that does not escape the judge’s daughter. As she joins them for their humble birthday party, she toasts “to our renewed friendship, and many dinners together. I like you two better than anyone I know.” While it’s not online, you can find Cather’s short story in a number of anthologies, including this one.
“The False Gems” by Guy de Maupassant
This short story is a famous example of sometimes-deceptive appearances and the destructive nature of greed. It tells the story of Monsieur Lantin falling hopelessly in love with an apparently modest, virtuous woman whom he eventually marries. However, the romance transforms into mystery upon his wife’s death, when he is forced to consider that perhaps his gentle, perfect wife was not quite who he thought she was.
The one fault that he found in his wife while she was alive was her obsession with imitation jewelry. He could never quite understand her desire to acquire more and more jewels to adorn herself with, and this bad habit of hers concerned him. As he discovers, it was more than just a bad habit. You can read de Maupassant’s short story here.
While it is more than possible to shop Black Friday sales without succumbing to greed or materialism, it is nevertheless helpful to find small reminders that help you stay grounded in what the season is truly about. I love unearthing subtle warnings to society written in novels and short stories, as I find them to be helpful motivations to “check myself” and consider the reason for—and amount of—my spending, especially during the holiday season.