Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What is Money?

Gregory Peck as Henry in Man With a Million

After reading Twain's short story "The 1,000,000 Pound Bank Note," the reader is asked to decide for themselves whether money is simply a symbol of wealth, or if it must be spent to be considered "wealth".  Twain raises an excellent question.  I found myself wondering what would happen to the main character, Henry Adams, who before receiving the money from the two rich brothers, was actually a very poor man.  The story begins with the two brothers arguing over the value and importance of money.  Oliver believes that simply having the note will give the owner anything he wants, without him ever having to cash it.  Rodereick, the other brother believes that since the note is worth so much money (1,000,000 pounds) that no one will be able to cash it or offer change, so it will be rendered useless.

Once the brothers decide to give the money to Henry, his life begins to change dramatically.  Henry tries returning the note at first, but the brothers had left town so that the experiment could commence.  With one million dollars in his pocket, Henry decides to go get some food and then new clothes. But what he starts to realize is that at first, no one will help him, simply because they can tell by his ragged clothes that he's poor, but then they all change when he shows them the note.   He gets his food put on account, and is told that he can spend as much as he likes, and that the owner trusts him to come back and pay.  Henry tells the restaurant owner that he doesn't know when he'll be back in the town, but still, because he's seen the 1 million dollar note, the owner trusts Henry to return with the money.

Check out a trailer for the 1954 film

As Henry begins to "spend" more money, more and more people begin to know who he is, and he soon begins to be written about in the paper. Even though no one can break the 1 million pound note, he is still able to buy and do whatever he wants as soon as he shows people the note.  The best comparison I can make to modern times is that Twain is comparing this 1 million pound note to credit cards.  Just as we buy on credit when we use credit cards, so does Henry.  

By the end of the story, we realize that Oliver is correct when he bet that just simply having the note would make the owner wealthy.  Money was just a symbol.  People treated Henry differently and with much more respect once they saw the note than before.  I think this really relates to the old saying: don't judge a book by its cover.  We are always told this as children, but as we saw through this story, Henry was judged until he showed everyone his one million dollar note.  

After reading the story, did you think that the money affected Henry more, or if the use of the note affected other peoples perceptions of him more?  


  1. I think that the note affected other peoples perceptions of him more than it affected him. The only thing that Henry really became worried about with the note was after he met Portia. He seemed like he was scared that she would no longer love him if he couldn't support her. However, all of the people around him were fascinated by him, even though the only thing that was really different about him was that he carried a 1,000,000 pound note with him in his vest pocket, which ended up making him famous-not something that he made himself, but what all of the other people made him.

  2. I was thinking the exact same thing as you were thinking, with the old saying of not judging a book by it's cover. In the story, Henry informed the sales clerk, "My friend, you shouldn't judge a stranger always by the clothes he wears. I am quite able to pay for this suit; I simply didn't wish to put you to the trouble of changing a large note. (321)"

    I think Twain wanted us to think about how we judge others based on appearances. We all do it. I can honestly say that every single person in the world (if able to think and process information) passes judgment on people. Maybe Twain wants us to realize our folly in passing a quick judgment on outward appearances rather than a person's character...