F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic Jazz Age novel The Great Gatsby celebrates its 90th anniversary on April 10. It may be nearly a century old, but the tale of a man who’s desperate to make something of himself to win the woman he’s always loved still resonates today. Jay Gatsby, the mysterious millionaire, and the love of his life, Daisy Buchanan, remain fascinating to readers of all generations—witness the recent dizzyingly visual film adaptation from Baz Luhrmann, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Wouldn’t we all love to live like Rockefellers and throw parties every day?
Of course, every story of a hero or heroine who strikes it rich through hard work, luck, or marriage is also a cautionary tale that tell us: “Be careful what you wish for,” and “Money can’t buy happiness.” In real life, we’d love the chance to prove that saying wrong, but in these classic books, there’s a steep price to pay for trying to have it all.
The Great Gatsby film still courtesy Warner Bros.
The Great Gatsby
The great novel of the Jazz Age is also a cautionary story of greed, ambition and the pursuit of the American Dream: Self-invented millionaire Jay Gatsby has amassed a fortune and an impressively mysterious identity all in the hopes of winning over his lost love, Daisy. Of course, money never could buy lasting happiness, could it?
In Dickens’s timeless tale, an orphaned boy, Pip, receives a large sum of money from an anonymous benefactor, but his new fortune comes too late to win his love, Estella. And he’s shocked to learn that the money is thanks is the escaped convict he helped as a child and who now needs his help again, proving that money always comes with obligations.
Becky Sharp is one of literature’s most ambitious social climbers who schemes, borrows and flirts her way into the good life: Let’s not forget that its subtitle of this classic satirical work is “A Novel Without a Hero.” It’s been filmed several times, including the 2004 adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon.
The Portrait of a Lady
In James’s acclaimed book, American Isabel Archer comes into a great deal of money while touring Europe and has an enviable choice of suitors. Unfortunately, she makes the most disastrous choice imaginable, one that might not have occurred if she weren’t so desirably wealthy.
The Count of Monte Cristo
The classic novel about one man’s elaborate scheme for revenge: Falsely imprisoned for years, he manages a miraculous escape and then builds an enviable new identity with an impressive fortune to go with it. Hollywood versions have changed the ending to a happy one but in Dumas’s book, there is no happiness for Edmond Dantes, who has spent his whole life exacting vengeance.
Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” So begins Austen’s beloved, witty classic, in which Elizabeth Bennet, the eldest of a family of girls who must all marry well to have a decent life, is wooed by the wealthy Mr. Darcy but — shockingly — turns down his proposal. She comes to realize she does love him and that he has much more to recommend him than just his wealth in the rare literary classic with a happy ending.