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The Measure of a Man Essay

And in this way, smiling, nodding to the music, he went another mile or so and pretended that he was not already slowing down, that he was not going to turn back, that he would be able to drive on like this alone, and have the right answer when his wife stood before him in the doorway of his home and asked, Where is he? Where is your brother?(Wolff 269)

What is the measure of a rich man? Is it his material possessions, the extent of his spirituality, or is it how he chooses to share his wealth with others, whether it is material or spiritual? Are we really our “brother’s keeper” or are we keepers of only our own wants and desires? These are all questions posed by Tobias Wolff in his short story, “The Rich Brother.” However, he provides an underlying answer to these questions. Is Pete really the richer brother because he has more material possessions? Wolff leads the reader to believe that this statement is not accurate.

Although Pete has more money and material possessions than his brother, Donald is truly the richer brother because of his spiritual insight and the care he exhibits toward Pete. Money alone is not the measure of a rich man. Wolff conveys this message through Pete’s values, his attitude toward Donald, and through religious symbolism.

Wolff makes it very evident to the reader what Pete’s values are throughout the story. When Pete has the dream about being blind it allows the reader to draw the conclusion that he is blinded by his own wealth. He cannot see what is really important in life. Pete is more concerned about being seen as a prosperous individual than he is about being seen as a spiritual individual. Because of this it is hard for him to understand his brother Donald and this is evident when the narrator says,

Pete couldn’t make sense of it. Their parents were both dead, but while they were alive neither of them had found it necessary to believe in anything. They had managed to be decent people without making fools of themselves, and Pete had the same ambition…(Wolff 257)

Pete believes that money is a sign of your success in life and he feels that Donald’s life is worthless because he doesn’t have any money or material things to show for it. This is made apparent when Pete says, “You don’t know! How could you know? You get money by holding out your hand… You work too. Don’t kid yourself brother…”(Wolff 267). Another example of this is when the narrator says,

He handed down his judgements in ways that he seemed to consider subtle: through significant silence, innuendo, looks of mild despair that said, Brother, what have you come to? What Pete had come to, as far as he could tell, was prosperity. That was the real issue between them. Pete prospered and Donald did not prosper…(Wolff 257)

Another instance in which his values are illustrated is when Donald asks him what he dreams about and Pete says, “Sex and money. Mostly money. A nightmare is when I dream I don’t have any…”(Wolff 261). This allows the reader to see that all Pete cares about is money and it makes it hard for the reader to sympathize with him.

Pete’s attitude toward his brother also makes it hard for the reader to sympathize with him. He views his brother as a waste of his own time and money and is very jealous of Donald as well. Wolff makes this clear to the reader when Donald says, “You’re basically a very frightened individual…Very threatened. You’ve always been like that. Do you remember when you used to try to kill me?”(Wolff 262). It becomes apparent that Pete used to try and kill Donald because he received more attention from their mother. This is also evident when Pete says, “Mom was in a state every time you burped…”(Wolff 262).

Pete also continuously tries to free himself from the responsibility of taking care of his brother. This is illustrated when he finds out that Donald gave the money away. Pete tells Donald, “You just keep quiet or I swear to God I won’t be responsible…”(Wolff 267). Pete’s jealous tendencies also become visible when he thinks about Donald’s promise from Webster coming true. “And it came to him that it would be just like this unfair life for Donald to come out ahead in the end, by believing in some outrageous promise that would turn out to be true…”(Wolff 268). All these factors help aid the reader in drawing the conclusion that Donald is the richer of the two brothers.

Although Wolff uses the actions and dialogues of the characters to emphasize the fact that Pete is not as rich as he may seem, Wolff also uses religious symbolism to help the reader make this connection as well. This entire story parallels the biblical parables of “The Prodigal Son” and “Cain and Abel.” Pete thinks to himself, “What a joke if there really was a blessing to be had, and the blessing didn’t come to the one who deserved it, the one who did all the work, but to the other.”(Wolff 268). He is very jealous that someone could get ahead of him in life just by doing nothing. At the end of the story narrator says, “…he…pretended…that he was not going to turn back, that he would be able to drive on like this…and have the right answer when his wife stood before him in the doorway of his home and asked, Where is he? Where is your brother?”(Wolff). This provides evidence for the reader to see the parallel between Wolff’s story and “Cain and Abel.”

Wolff also uses many subtle symbolic gestures to add to the religious theme of the story. The names of all the towns mentioned in this story have a religious meaning. For example, “Santa Cruz,” “Paso Robles,” and “Soledad.” “Santa Cruz” means “holy cross,” “Paso Robles” means, “withered tree,” and “Soledad” means “loneliness.” He also uses the character of Webster to symbolize “Greed” and “Hell.” Wolff makes this evident when Webster states, “The doctors have no name for it, but I do…Greed. My greed, not hers.”(Wolff 264). It is also symbolic when Webster gets dropped off in Soledad. It is insinuated that love of material things only results in loneliness and love of material things can only lead to Hell. When Webster speaks of the “Lowlands,” he is speaking about Hell. All these aspects of the story help add to its religious connotation.

We all have heard the famous cliche, “Money is the root of all evil.” It is easy for a person to say that he would be charitable if he was rich, but money is a very powerful object in today’s society and it definitely can change someone. Money can’t buy happiness, it only brings loneliness. What is the use of having material possessions if we don’t have anyone to share them with. There are many people in the world that are in need and it should be our goal to provide assistance. We are our “brother’s keeper” no matter how bad we would like to forget it.

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