A Pound of Flesh: Extraordinary Literary Debts


Today marks the release of David Graeber’s new book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. In this red-bound tome, Graeber explains the concept of debt and credit and the ramifications of both, except he does so in a way that is accessible for those who are in the mood to question the current global economic set up. He writes, “Looking over world literature, it is almost impossible to find a single sympathetic representation of a moneylender.” Which got us thinking about the the anxieties involved in owing debts and what we could learn from the stories of hardship and redemption below. In these tales, the debtors are to be pitied, but at times their actions can be shocking. What are some books you would add to the debt debate, dear readers? Let us know in the comments section.

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

In the play, Shylock is a Jewish moneylender who offers a tidy sum to Antonio, his rival. The security for the transaction is, unbelievably, a part of himself. When Antonio can’t pay the loan, a vengeful Shylock demands the pound of flesh as his fee. (Antonio did spit on and mock him, after all.) But the judge has the final say:

“Tarry a little, there is something else, This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood; The words expressly are, a pound of flesh; Then take thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh; But, in the cutting of it, if thou doth shed One drop of christian blood; thy lands and goods Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate Unto the state of Venice”

Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In this legendary tale, an incredibly dissatisfied teacher named Faust summons Mephistopheles, the devil’s representative, in order to wager that no amount of experience will lead him to wish to live for eternity. Once Faust signs “with a droplet of blood” the deal is made, and Faust’s soul will likely be the property of the devil in a matter of years. But who in their right mind makes a debt with the devil? Surely this won’t end well.

Faust tells the demon:

“Whatever is the lot of humankind I want to taste within my deepest self. I want to seize the highest and lowest, to load its woe and bliss upon my breast, and thus expand my single self titanically…”

The Canterbury Tales (“Friar’s Tale”) by Geoffrey Chaucer

In “The Friar’s Tale,” we come to learn how bailiffs, or the emissaries of landlords, cheat the tenants and engage in extortion in order to serve themselves. And yet, the two men claiming to be bailiffs are not what they seem (one is a demon, the other a summoner). In the end, the unscrupulous summoner gets carted off to hell rather than repent for his misdeeds. When he first meets the demon/bailiff, he says:

“Now, brother,” said this summoner, “I pray You’ll teach me, while we ride along our way, Since that you are a bailiff, as am I, A trick or two, and tell me faithfully How, in my office, I may most coin win; And spare not for nice conscience, nor for sin, But as my brother tell your arts to me.” “Now by my truth, dear brother,” then said he, If I am to relate a faithful tale, My wages are right scanty, and but small. My lord is harsh to me and niggardly, My job is most laborious, you see; And therefore by extortion do I live.

Middlemarch by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)

Mr. Featherstone is a terrible old man, and Fred Vincy, an irresponsible gambler who loses a fair amount of money through some bad deals, believes he will come into more funds once Featherstone passes away:

“Fred was of a hopeful disposition, and a vision had presented itself of a sum just large enough to deliver him from a certain anxiety. When Fred got into his debt, it always seemed to him highly probably that something or other — he did not necessarily conceive what — would come to pass enabling him to pay in due time.”

In the end, this is not the case, which makes Fred tell his love, Mary, that he has decided to become a poor clergyman. She tells him to be brave, and that “you are better off without the money.”

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Russians and debt: a perennial issue in 19th century literature. Dostoevsky himself was rarely out of debt, and his characters experienced similar predicaments. In Crime and Punishment, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is a man living hand to mouth in St. Petersburg. He forms a plan to kill a pawnbroker in order to take her money and get himself back on his feet. In a conversation overheard between a student and an officer, Raskolnioff is given additional impetus to commit the crime:

“A dozen families might be saved from hunger, want, ruin, crime, and misery, all with her money! Kill her, I say, take it from her, and dedicate it to the service of humanity and the general good! What’s your opinion? Shall not one little crime be effaced and atoned for by a thousand good deeds? For one useless life a thousand lives saved from decay and death. One death, and a hundred beings restored to existence!”

The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov

The play accounts the return of Madame Ranevsky, who is urged to sell her beloved Russian estate in order to repay her debts. Selling the cherry orchard is unthinkable, and yet their inaction causes it to be chopped down:

Lopakhin: “You. Rent. Out. The. Cottages which you have built… (Pause) Now: the very least — one acre, twenty-five rubles — rent them at that price and I assure you, by fall, not one plot — you won’t have one plot left. You’ll rent them all — which is to say one thing, and that’s congratulations — I congratulate you because you are saved — fine land. Deep river, put in a sand beach… and what it is is strikingly perfect. Alright? You clear the land, the old buildings, the house will have to come down, but it’s served its turn… Yes, you cut down the cherry orchard.”

Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens

In this cautionary tale, a child considers his parents as his property, and eagerly awaits their death so that he can inherit their funds:

“The education of Mr Jonas had been conducted from his cradle on the strictest principles of the main chance. The very first word he learnt to spell was ‘gain,’ and the second (when he got into two syllables), ‘money.’ But for two results, which were not clearly foreseen perhaps by his watchful parent in the beginning, his training may be said to have been unexceptionable. One of these flaws was, that having been long taught by his father to over-reach everybody, he had imperceptibly acquired a love of over-reaching that venerable monitor himself. The other, that from his early habits of considering everything as a question of property, he had gradually come to look, with impatience, on his parent as a certain amount of personal estate, which had no right whatever to be going at large, but ought to be secured in that particular description of iron safe which is commonly called a coffin, and banked in the grave.”

The Wild Geese by Mori Ogai

This classic Japanese novel is set in the late 1800s in Tokyo, where a miserly teacher named Suezo begins to lend money to needy students. After a short time, he begins to make a tidy sum from his side profession as a moneylender, but this new-found wealth comes with the growing belief that his wife is unworthy of his affections. He decides to woo a poor, beautiful mistress who mistakenly believes he will relieve her of her debts.

“Usually Suezo would lie awake in bed while devising new schemes for increasing the interest on his loans. His wife never complained about this habit, and she was usually asleep long before her husband…’Poor devil,’ he thought. ‘Sleeping there and not knowing a thing! She believes I’m adding up sums, but how wrong! How stupid and wrong! If you only knew–”

The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais

In Book Three of the series, there is an essay titled, “In Praise of Debt” (i.e., “How Panurge praiseth the debtors and borrowers”), which gives us key tips on how to go about life:

“Always owe somebody something, then he will be forever praying God to grant you a good, long and blessed life. Fearing to lose what you owe him, he will always be saying good things about you in every sort of company; he will be constantly acquiring new lenders for you, so that you can borrow to pay him back, filling his ditch with other men’s spoil.”

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans

In a modern twist on the debt debate, Danielle Evans talks about white college girls who take hormones and sell their eggs for spending money in her short story, titled, “Harvest”:

“Five, ten, fifteen thousand you could get for doing it just once. More than that if you were experienced… She was making bank, but we couldn’t hate her for it. Absent her new income, she would have been broke like the rest of us: too good a daughter to guilt her single mother into sending more money than she could afford.”

Instead of racking up more student loans, these (white) college girls sell their eggs to eager couples wanting designer babies. Is this another Faustian deal with the devil, or just a way to get by? In an article written on funding opportunities at MSU, the author writes, “In these tough times, the body isn’t just a temple. It can be a gold mine.” Do you agree?