10/26/2012 02:54 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

A Wealth of Wealthy Characters in Literature

With Election Day getting very close, I'd like to note that Mitt Romney is extremely rich, Barack Obama is fairly rich and many characters in literature are also rolling in large amounts of dough.

Like Mitt and the president, wealthy fictional protagonists vary in that some are "to the manor born" while others become affluent from their own hard work. Literature's rich characters also vary in their likability -- ranging from appalling to appealing. So, let the naming of moneyed protagonists begin!

First up is Bertie Wooster from the many P.G. Wodehouse novels and stories that co-star Jeeves the butler. Bertie has plenty in the bank and never does a lick of paid work, yet he's a rather endearing guy. A bit dim at times, but very funny and loyal to friends -- with that last trait often getting him into hilariously stressful situations.

Meanwhile, Jeeves is calm and brilliant, which leads one to ask: Why the heck is he the butler and Bertie the boss? That duo's dynamic shows that the less affluent often have more intelligence and common sense than their wealthy "betters." They just had the misfortune of not having parents with a fortune.

The Wodehouse novel I recently read was Jeeves in the Offing, and it was delightful. Commenter "jhNY," who convinced me to try P.G.'s work, recommends that author's Thank You, Jeeves and The Code of the Woosters.

Among other likable rich characters is Archie Weir in Weir of Hermiston, Robert Louis Stevenson's best novel but unfortunately a book left unfinished because of the author's death.

Then there are the upper-class characters a reader has mixed or negative feelings about. For instance, Rochester in Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece Jane Eyre is basically a good man who had become embittered, but he does possess some arrogant "I want what I want" tendencies.

Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic The Great Gatsby is less likable than the unlucky, charismatic Rochester. But the greatly rich Gatsby -- who has a history of suspect business dealings -- does evoke some sympathy with his longings for Daisy Buchanan.

Octave Mouret in Emile Zola's compelling The Ladies' Delight is an ambitious, ruthless businessman whose constant expanding of his Parisian department store drives nearby mom-and-pop shops into ruin. But that big-box bully has a softer side in his love for the admirable Denise Baudu, who works in his store. Still, Octave treats many other people badly -- making him a mostly, but not completely, negative character.

Similar things can be said about Scrooge in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. That well-heeled hell is thoroughly unlikable until the book's conclusion, and even a reformed Scrooge wouldn't appear on many readers' Christmas-card lists.

There are also the various idle rich in Edith Wharton novels such as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, the wealthy Gaston in Gigi (a famous but lesser novel by the great Colette), those aristocrats in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" story who blithely party on as they try to avoid the plague decimating the rest of the population, and the selfish, entitled royals in terrific novels such as Sir Walter Scott's Quentin Durward, Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers and Dumas' sequels to that swashbuckling book. The prince in Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper comes off more sympathetically.

Or how about wealthy bond trader Sherman McCoy in Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities? Spoiled, arrogant George Amberson Minafer in Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons? Rich slave owner Simon Legree in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin? The name "Simon Legree" was practically synonymous with evil for many decades.

In some ways, novels with hateful upper-class protagonists are my favorite books featuring fiscally flush folk. It's quite satisfying to loathe unsavory rich characters because these villains make life hell for so many other characters -- whether they be underpaid/overworked employees or almost anyone else who's hurt when money and influence are deployed to skew everything toward the rich at the expense of the non-rich.

Hateful fictional fat cats do make us think about how we might behave better if we were lucky enough to have big bankrolls. Putting ourselves in a character's place can be a very nice thing about literature.

And when rich fictional characters are good, charitable people, we admire them for those qualities. Maybe we're a bit jealous, but we don't begrudge them their fortunes. Heck, maybe they can even give us some tips on getting rich ourselves -- which can help us buy ... more novels!

Who are the wealthy fictional characters you've found most memorable, whether you like them or not?


Dave Astor's memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional has been published -- and the many famous people mentioned in its pages include some novelists! If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at The Amazon listing, which can be accessed by clicking on the front cover below, contains more details about the book and a look at some of its pages.