Greedy Reads – Exploring Avarice in Literature

Strangely enough I found it more difficult to come up with examples of ‘Greed’ or ‘Avarice’ in literature than in film this month but once I thought about different genres then the examples came flooding in and inevitably I had to edit some out! The first novel I am going to recommend is part of the 2015 Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival’s Big Read campaign see: https://harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/crime/. I was lucky enough to meet with crime writer David Mark to discuss this book as part of the festival’s programme.

Blood Shot by Sara Paretsky

Blood Shot: V.I. Warshawski 5 is the fifth book in Sara Paretsky’s crime series following the exploits of private investigator Victoria Iphegenia (V.I) Warshawski who is lured back to her old South Chicago neighbourhood to work for a neighbour she would rather forget about. Neighbour Caroline Dijak has asked her to find her father for her. As she becomes more involved in the complicated investigation and finds that her enquiries are thwarted at every turn she becomes more determined to find out exactly why she is being diverted from her case and of course risks everything to discover the truth. V.I. herself is not greedy in the financial sense rather in this book and in a large portion of her other novels, she is always fighting against corporate greed, huge corporations and the CEO’s in charge of them. In Blood Shot this greed concerns a chemical company and also questions the morality of the private insurance industry. In other books, she is critical of the US medical system, the US prison service and how this profits off the misery of those less fortunate and the greed of technology companies. Blood Shot is a good book to start with if you have not read any of the others my favourites in the series are Bitter Medicine, Hard Time and Breakdown. A new V.I book is out in July, I have already placed my order and can’t wait to read it!

Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier

A strange choice you may think, but bear with me! Jamaica Inn (VMC) by Daphne Du Maurier covers many themes but through the character of the threatening Joss Merlyn, we see how greed infests his everyday life and actions and causes him to commit terrible crimes. Jamaica Inn has been mostly notorious in the popular imagination for the mumbled BBC adaptation which is a shame because it is a very good tale at its heart and could also be said to be a Gothic novel. The descriptions of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall are very evocative and the beach scenes at night are also powerfully written. For me, out of all the Du Maurier books that I have read I also feel that the heroine Mary Yellen is the strongest female, certainly stronger than Mrs De Winter in Rebecca as she fights back and is certain of her own way and morality. Jamaica Inn is one of my favourite Du Maurier books and worth a read.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Ok, I know it is not Christmas, so here is an unseasonal choice!

Is there a more greedy figure in literature than Ebenezer Scrooge?

In A Christmas Carol The Graphic Novel: Original Text (British English)? Scrooge is so wealthy yet covets all his wealth for himself, is not charitable to friends, family or those in need and as a consequence is very lonely. Of course this story is a parable of redemption in that he gets a chance to see what a difference his life would make if he does not change through the visits from the ghosts of past, present and future. My favourite bit in the book though is the thoroughly Gothic visit by the ghost of Jacob Marley, (Scrooge’s old business partner) who is suffering in Hell (we presume), covered in rattling chains and weights as a punishment for his greed and meanness in life towards others. Jacob Marley serves as a vivid reminder of Scrooge’s fate should he not change his ways. There are of course many versions of this story as well as film adaptations but for something a bit different then why not try the Classical Comics version? I love these and wish that they were around when I was at school.

So, quite a lean towards the dark and Gothic this month, for the theme of ‘Greed.’ I wish next month could be lighter but I doubt it as our theme will be Wrath/Anger!! If you have any different suggestions then get in touch at the usual places.

A historical sin with lasting consequence: ‘Avarice’

The idea of avarice or “greed”, may conjure up an image of a miserly, cantankerous money-lender, grinding the faces of the poor. A “scrooge” type even. Yet, as much as this stereotype may hold some credit, it can be unhelpful when examining greed. What may not be so easily seen is that whilst greed can be seen as an individual trait, or personal failing, it can cause a major, damaging impact to society. This can be seen from the rise and fall of the South Sea Company in the 18th Century.

The South Sea Trading Company

The National Debt, or certainly the problem of it may appear to be a fairly recent phenomenon (especially from the mainstream media), since the 2008 economic crash. The reality, however, is rather different.

In the early 18th Century, there was a great national debt that the British government was faced with. Having been involved with many costly wars fighting other European powers, the British needed to find a way to generate money. Having seen the economic successes of the East India Company, there was an idea to create a similar financial institution. Most importantly, one that would buy off the government debt. This was the reason behind the formation of the South Sea Company.

The South Sea Company was founded by John Blunt, a man who closely aligned himself with the government. Blunt saw this company as a way that he could not only solve the debt crisis but also make himself exceedingly wealthy. The only problem with this was that the company would operate from South and Central America – countries that were under Spanish rule. Britain was at war with Spain and so the only option was to make peace.

The treaty that was agreed to only allowed for one ship a year from Britain to the Spanish owned ports in the Americas. Certainly, nowhere near the East India Company’s quota of ships operating the other side of the world, and, in retrospect, barely worth the trouble. However, what would follow would be an unprecedented level of public endorsement and support for the company which would lead to mass speculation, investment and high growth of the price of the stock.

Checking the Facts

The realities of the value of the South Sea Company would hit hard.  In 1720 a spectacular economic crash would unfold. This crash, commonly called the “South Sea Bubble”, was perhaps even more severe than the recent 2008 recession. Many people had lost everything and were left homeless. Even the government failed in their aims to keep their finances in check, and instead of resolving their financial problems, ended up with an even more massive debt.

The impact of this time is still with us today. In fact, the government debt caused by this time is still being paid back!

South_Sea_Bubble_Cards-Tree
A satirical image from an 1850s publication describing the impact of the “South Sea Bubble”

It may be unfair to describe the crash as purely motivated by avarice, at least initially. There was a tough economic situation that the government faced and needed a solution.
Yet, it is undeniable that the over-valuing of the stock and speculation to an unrealistic and dangerous level was reckless, and certainly not a way to solve the debt crisis. Instead, these policies were designed to maximize John Blunt’s own profits, even at the expense of the country as a whole. A sure sign of avarice.

Final Thoughts…

The “South Sea Bubble” may present a  lesson that has yet to be learnt, with greed being at the heart of many of its problems. Further, the Bubble demonstrates how such speculation can have a devastating impact across the economy as a whole and far-reaching effects on society.

It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on this article, please feel free to comment below.

“Avarice” in Gardening

Avarice can be a rather esoteric concept to tie to gardening and plants, however one particular plant springs to mind. That would be the Crassula Ovata or money plant.

The money plant (Crassula Ovata) is a beautiful plant with bold, succulent green leaves, which can have wonderful red leaf margins when grown in strong light. This South African succulent is native to the Eastern Cape and is found growing in the crevices in rocky hillsides.

This represents the pockets of life in an otherwise sparse landscape, in a way perhaps the exuberance of such a beautiful plant greedily holding onto precious moisture in parched environment symbolically represents ‘Avarice’. Where in this case, water is the currency of life.

Crassula ovata.
Money Plant (Crassula Ovate) foliage.

This plant is probably best known in the UK as a houseplant often being sold in large DIY stores and gardens centres labelled as ‘Money Tree’ or ‘Jade Plant’.

It holds a superstitious value for people in the Far East where it is often grown in large containers with terracotta lion’s paws, as it is believed to bring good fortune.

Lion’s Paw pot stands

The money plant is a fairly undemanding plant that doesn’t require a lot of watering and desires a well-drained compost mix. A sunny window is a must and good ventilation in hot weather is essential to prevent leaf scorch.

Its flowers contrast well with the foliage as the flowers have sword-like petals that terminate in a sharp point.

Money plant flowers

This is a fine plant for both the home and garden and with the added bonus it may bring good fortune then its a win-win situation.

The Greed Factor in Film

For the month of June continuing with our Seven Deadly Sins theme our theme is ‘Greed or Avarice.’ Greed is a topic that is ever prevalent today and at times throughout the Twentieth Century. The gap between the rich and the poor seems to be expanding combined with a fetishizing of luxury goods and a desire for more we seemed to have leaned little from the financial mistakes of the past. This leads to a society of those that have and those that don’t or those that don’t have but get into debt to obtain. There are quite a few examples of films that I could use for this theme but I decided to start with the obvious one which is Wall Street.

Wall Street by Oliver Stone (1987)

Wall Street [Special Edition] [1988] [DVD] was originally called Greed by screenplay writer Stanley Weiser best epitomises the ‘easy money’ trading of the 1980s where the free market reigned supreme, before the 1980s financial crash occurred. You can view this film as a warning for the future as we know that we did not learn from the reckless behaviours shown in this film, if anything they escalated over the last two decades bringing with them the 2008 financial crisis. Greed for money is shown in the iconic scene where Gordon Gekko says ‘greed is good.’ The ruthless practices of financial trading are exposed when young trader Bud Fox played by Charlie Sheen becomes obsessed with getting Gordon Gekko’s custom and idolises him but this causes a conflict and threatens his family and his father’s job as Union rep at an airline company. It also leads to Bud committing insider trading. The main plot of the film is this conflict between what Bud knows is morally right and the greed and desire for more money and Gordon’s influence. A strange phenomena that transpired from the film is that some people looked up to the behaviours of the characters and decided to become stockbrokers in real life due to the influence of the film, so instead of seeing Gordon Gekko as a villain they saw him as a hero!

Double Indemnity by Billy Wilder (1944)

Double Indemnity [DVD] [1944] is one of my favourite films and is my favourite ‘film noir ‘film. Although this film could be placed under ‘lust’ I feel that greed is the main motivating factor. It has an excellent script by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler adapted from the novel of the same name by James M Cain (incidentally an excellent read in itself and worth a look at for the different ending!). Fred MacMurray plays Walter Neff, an insurance salesman who becomes involved with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) after visiting her home in LA. She persuades him to sell her husband an accidental death policy without his knowledge that will pay out ‘double indemnity’ if he dies on a train. She then persuades Walter to help her murder him and claim the money. The snag in her plan is Walter’s colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G.Robinson), a tenacious and suspicious claims investigator and good friend of Walter who smells a rat. Greed infests Double Indemnity, Walter is persuaded to act in a dreadful way due to his greed for Phyllis and Phyllis is the original black widow, having no problem with the murder and disposal of her husband to achieve her aim of financial reward. Of course as this was made during the time of the Hollywood Production Code there are consequences to their actions, you’ll have to watch the film to find out what these are…

The Bling Ring by Sofia Coppola (2013)

The Bling Ring [DVD] [2013] is an account based on the real life robberies of young Hollywood celebrities. What made this story so outrageous was that the perpetrators were mostly teenage girls who wanted to own the clothes and accessories of their famous idols. This hero worship based on an accumulation of stolen expensive designer goods makes for a disturbing film. Sofia Coppola is known for her dreamy aesthetic in her films and this film does contain moments of this but it is also at times like a pop video in some scenes with montages of loud music and dancing. What seems most disturbing is that the kids do not seem to have a sense of morality in that they do not see that what they are doing is wrong or expect many, if any consequences for their actions. Parents are often absent or remote in the film and seem to have little control or influence over their children’s lives as they seem so wrapped up in their own lives instead. Parenting (when it is present) is shown as being permissive and this leads to the kids feeling lost and they rely on and are influenced by the second hand lives of media stars and their lifestyles and possessions. This film represents the negative consequences of greed, especially the effects of greed on young people who idolise material goods and obtaining them through whatever means. It highlights a need for strong family role models and parents who are present with their kids in whatever time they have and the need for strong boundaries.

These examples are three eclectic films from different times but they do have an overarching themes and that is that the desire for greed caused the protagonists to commit crimes of various degrees but their motive was always the same, to obtain more money or expensive possessions and causing misery to others. Showing that a life of greed is no way to live.