If we learn about the world through stories, then we probably first learn about business through stories too. As scholars have pointed out, children’s literature provides a unique window on society’s norms and values; stories are expressive of ideology even when they do not purport to be didactic[i]. Ideology can be overt, in the form of a tale about good versus evil, or it can be implicit in the details of the narrative, such as the traditional gender role division in The Tiger Who Came to Tea (Kerr, 1968). The very essence of a story can betray a particular way of viewing the world (why do we have stories about good versus evil?), and sometimes this is all the opportunity we get to learn about situations, people, and actions that we may never get to experience. So the question of economic socialisation and financial literacy does not begin with math sums in class, nor even exclusively with accompanying caregivers on a trip to the supermarket—it begins with the way in which consumer society is portrayed in the stories that show us that Max went on a wild rumpus, the caterpillar was hungry, and why the cow said ‘Cluck!’[ii]
Alas, while research on children’s literature and socialisation is thriving, studies on the representation of markets, economics, and consumerism are scarce. There are a few gems, however, worth highlighting (albeit superficially, so I do recommend intrigued readers seek out the original articles), as they begin to unpack the complexity of our relationship to economic roles. Interestingly enough, these readings are often rooted in investigations of the circumstances of production—which is, of course, a business question. The economic and financial debates of the day glimmer through these classic tales, shedding light the tensions and anxieties that are part and parcel of human life, yet often difficult to express.
Take Treasure Island (Stevenson, 1883), a classic tale of buried treasure. Naomi Wood pegs it as a “romance about money, […that] also defines the value of persons in monetary terms and provides an extensive commentary on the mechanisms of capitalist profit.”[iii] Most of us will have forgotten by now that during Stevenson’s lifetime, the industrialising world was debating the merits of gold versus silver standard, and that this debate took clear moral, political, and classist dimensions. The telling opposition of “true gold versus bad silver”[iv] contrasted the moral rectitude of high birth (who endorsed the gold standard) with the greedy depravity of the new rich (who endorsed the silver standard). Foregrounding debates on substance and value in his writing, Wood concludes that Stevenson displayed a much less conservative mindset than previously attributed, as Treasure Island ultimately reveals the constructedness of value judgements.
Though the protagonist, Jim Hawkins, initially takes the superiority of gentlemen born at face value, this belief is shaken by Long John Silver’s ability to move seamlessly between gentility and piracy. This ability to change his own ‘value’ according to his situation questions the distinguishability between classes of people, but it also subverts the stability of this categorisation. Not only is Long John Silver a pirate of great talent (and thus a ‘silver’ sort of person), he is also a very capable manager of his wealth (usually a characteristic of only ‘gold’ people). Thus steeped in ambivalence, Stevenson shows that value is not inherent to an object, but rather generated through the object’s use—and in doing so, the author challenges the simple dualism of good (gold/gentlemen born) versus bad (silver/gentlemen of fortune): “If Treasure Island romanticizes the pursuit of money, it also demonstrates the extend to which the value of money and morality is ungrounded, a nexus of continual struggle, compromise, and betrayal.”[v] Sound familiar?
If it doesn’t, then perhaps a consumerist reading of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Baum, 1900) will strike closer to home—although readers should be aware that the film and the novel do diverge on some crucial framings. Digging into L. Frank Baum’s past, Stuart Culver argues that the world of Oz was greatly inspired by the author’s professional stint in window display design, on which he has simultaneously writing a treatise titled The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows. The irony is palpable: while the novel “advances a genteel critique of commodity fetishism,”[vi] Baum was at the same time deeply engrossed in promoting his advertising skills. This, together with the backdrop of the contemporaneous agrarian Populist opposition to industrialisation, result in a peculiar commentary on consumer society.
Dorothy, coming from an environment of abject and colourless agrarian poverty (which nevertheless is ‘home,’ and therefore better than being anywhere else) finds herself transported to the beautiful land of Oz, where property is not a possession but a part of the self; hence, despite her protests, the attribution of her house’s actions (dropping onto the Wicked Witch of the East) to her person. Oz is therefore a place where consumer culture reigns supreme: its capital, Emerald City, is not only the market place par excellence, it also fetishises the colour green, once more foregrounding the fictitious nature of value. Being a master of artifice, the Wizard “makes the Ozites content with just the appearance of the impossible value, capitalising on their readiness to take the absolutely artificial as a substitute for the fundamentally unpurchasable.”[vii] After the exposure of his fraud, the Ozites accept the hoax, continue to value the colour green, and complete the logic by welcoming the Scarecrow as their new ruler: a “[literal] straw man who only holds the Wizard’s place […and] presents a new model of personhood” that denies the distinction between needs and wants that was so crucial to Populist morality.[viii]
Culver argues that Baum found inspiration in his innovations as a window dresser, where he advocated the use of illusion and trickery to attract the attention of passersby with a degree of discomfort. Natural curiosity might compel an audience to find out how the illusion is achieved, thereby drawing attention to the promoted goods but also, precariously, taking attention away from them as well. Advertising thus becomes an attraction in itself, and the window dresser’s primary purpose to sell goods ironically becomes secondary to the elaborate tricks of the trade. On the basis of this knowledge, Culver re-reads The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a tale of tension between the value of an object by virtue of being displayed (and thus being functionally useless) and the destruction of this value once it is acquired through purchase (as it is then no longer displayed). Just as Ozites resign themselves to the paradox in their acceptance of the ‘green’ hoax, Dorothy experiences it in relation to a ballerina figure: “she comes to love the inescapability of advertising and the useless article and, in loving that, she loves also the possibility of desire purified of all need, no longer subject to satisfaction.”[ix] In other words, Culver concludes, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz “registers a certain anxiety about the art [Baum] practiced and promoted […in acknowledging that he] never quite manages to domesticate the desire he provokes.”[x] Like the wizard, the advertiser loses control over her own subterfuge, while the consumer grows comfortable with the never-satisfied pursuit of illusion.
Though these readings begin to suggest the ideological underpinnings and subversive representations of the economic world in children’s stories, even more acute examples of ideological shaping can be found by examining their historical development and readership. For example, in God and the Bourgeoisie…,[xi] Ruth Bottigheimer explores the evolution of children’s Bibles. Although early production was targeted to an affluent readership, a two-tier printing tradition sprung up between 1750 and 1850, separating publications for the well-to-do (titled, for example, “For Carefully Reared Children”) from the poor (“For Country Children”).[xii] ‘Tailoring’ a different Bible for each class of children was not only a matter of material difference (a gilded, illustrated version for the one, and a print of poor quality for the other), but also the text itself diverged: Where the rich read about work as a necessity relegated to those deficient in moral character, the poor were taught to endure and appreciate work as their duty and their salvation.
Nowadays, this distinction no longer exists. Interestingly, however, Bottigheimer argues this is unlikely to have occurred through an ideological countermove that consciously aimed to ‘proletarianize’ upper-class children, but should rather be attributed to the economics of increasingly profitable mass printing technologies in the 1850s. An amalgamation of both versions of the biblical stories became one mainstream single-class Bible, with the text for the poor eventually dominating the final product. A distinction between readerships was retained in the material quality of the books, but also those differences disappeared eventually, leaving us with a text expressing a distinct work ethic, the origins of which had become obscured.
There is much, therefore, that the study of literature can tell us about business, but also about being human; or perhaps more accurately, about being a human doing business. Though these tales are all set in times long past, the tensions that they foreground are still palpable — we might recognise contemporary struggles with the meaning of value, the place of consumerist desire, the nature and availability of information depending on one’s identity and context. There is plenty more research to be done in this area, and I make one such contribution in a forthcoming book chapter where I discuss the nature of money in Dogger (Hughes, 1977), Master Money the Millionaire (Ahlberg, 1981), and The Great Pet Sale (Inkpen, 1998). Perhaps, next time we struggle explaining the ambiguous repercussions of economic, managerial, or consumer theory to our students, we might enlist the insights that come from revisiting our childhood stories.
[i] Peter Hollindale, Ideology and the Children’s Book (Oxford: Thimble Press in association with Westminster College, 1988); John Stephens, Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction (Harlow: Longman, 1992).
[ii] For those who, like myself, did not grow up in the anglophone world, do get your hands on Where the Wild Things Are (Sendak, 1963), The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Carle, 1969), and What the Ladybird Heard (Donaldson, 2009).
[iii] Naomi J. Wood, “Gold Standards and Silver Subversions: Treasure Island and the Romance of Money,” Children’s Literature 26, no. 1 (1998): 61, doi:10.1353/chl.0.0144.
[iv] Ibid., 76.
[v] Ibid., 79.
[vi] Stuart Culver, “What Manikins Want: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows,” Representations, no. 21 (1988): 97, doi:10.2307/2928378.
[vii] Ibid., 104.
[ix] Ibid., 112.
[x] Ibid., 104.
[xi] Ruth B. Bottigheimer, “God and the Bourgeoisie: Class, the Two-Tier Tradition, Work, and Proletarianization in Children’s Bibles,” The Lion and the Unicorn 17, no. 2 (1993): 124–34, doi:10.1353/uni.0.0021.
[xii] Ibid., 124.