Over the decades, humanity has changed a substantial amount on several different aspects. Although many things have changed, the recurring themes of human greed and betrayal have both stayed persistent. By examining several stories this essay aims to critically assess the underlying theme of greed, specifically in the form of greed for personal rank and reputation, greed for wealth, greed over religion for worldly goods, and final greed and betrayal of loyalty for love.
In this essay I will be looking at the underlying theme of greed by articulating four readings from World Literature and Thought and Classics of Western Thought, and finally by tying in the past examples to a modern day examples where applicable. Greed and betrayal can be observed in Po Hseing-Chien’s The Courtesan Li Wan specifically in the form of personal gain through title. In the story the young scholar is betrayed in two different ways as he is betrayed by his father and Li Wan, the woman he loves. The story mainly focuses on the betrayal of the young scholar due to his father and lover Li Wan’s greed for personal gain, specifically through the characters manipulative use of the scholars love for themselves and the continual abandonment of then man when they don’t receive what the please.
In The Courtesan Li Wan, the characters can be analyzed to represent two polar opposite roles of greed and caring in society, specifically between the wealthy and the poor. Both Li Wan and the young scholars father are very greedy and are always focused on their personal gain, where the young scholar is the exact opposite- he is willing to give them everything he has for the name of love which results in his evident downfall. Li Wan’s betrayal for the scholar is focused all around her and her mother’s personal gain and the manipulation of her love for the scholar.
When she first meets the scholar her mother and her see him to be a perfect fit, as he seems promising due to his wealth and intelligence. The scholar spends all of his money on Li Wan’s greed and abandons his studies, leaving everything he has for his loves personal benefit. Due to this, he becomes poor and Li Wa and her lady are quick to abandon him as he can no longer pay for them leave him for dead, he is so hurt by this that he becomes deathly ill. When the young scholar finds himself back to Li Wan, she feels extremely guilty for the misfortunes her greed has brought upon him, and propels herself to bring him to greatness once again.
Although a nice thought the kindness ends and Li Wan plans on once again leaving her for her own benefit of finding a husband who can properly support her, and the young scholar once again feels the sting of betrayal for the selfish means of the woman he loves. Although the scholar’s father first shows love and pride towards his son in the beginning of the story, he is quick to later betray his son for title and respect of his peers. The father’s main focus is his own reputation, and is aimed so much on his own personal gain that he abandons his son completely. When the scholar reveals himself to his father as a poor man with nothing, the father beats him because he is ashamed of what his son has become, rather than what his expected him to be when he sent him off to gain high ranking and get a good name for the family.
His father’s embarrassment and focus on personal gain becomes so extreme that he whips his son for he is seen as a disgrace in his eyes and leaves him for dead. While applying The Courtesan Li Wan to our modern day society, it can be seen how it can easily be applied to the poor and the rich in the capitalist world. The top 20% of Canadian businessmen and women are currently making up to 47% of all of Canada’s wealth, taking from the other 80% who work hard laborious jobs to provide for themselves and their families (Global News, 2015).
While looking at the characters in the story, Li Wan and the father can also be seen as the top percentile- continually expecting to receive by using the labour and work of others, who happens to be the young scholar, in this case. The greed in society has stayed persistent amongst the thousands of years, showing that humankind will continue to use one-another as long as it get’s them what they want. Although the end of the story has a somewhat happy ending for all three of the main characters, greed can still be seen to persist. The two whom he had loved the most and had left him for dead only returned back to his side when they could both benefit from it.
For Li Wa, the scholar had begun to renounce a higher title due to his intelligence and high scoring of examinations which benefited her greatly as she got a wealthy high ranked husband who could provide for her as she wished and was titled with the title of Lady Ch’ien (Hsing-chien, page 260). When the father was called to come and see his son the father only took him back when he saw his title, which was acceptable for the family name when he then took the son that he once left for dead before into his arms and claimed “Now we’re father and son, just as it was before” (Hsing-chien, 259). In this story it can be observed that the young scholar, who represents a caring and bestowing character gave all to those whom he loved who used him for their greater good and the good of their names.
Greed in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, several of the characters can be observed as greedy, specifically in the aspects of corruption for personal gain. Canterbury Tales can also be related to greed of humanity in our modern day world. When critically assessing the characters staying in the Tabard Inn they can almost be seen metaphorically to represent the larger population of the earth and the different sources of greed that so commonly affect our planet’s population. While analyzing all of the characters in the Tales, the characters can all be seen to differently represent aspects of greed in the population, specifically in the aspects of personal gain of wealth.
The knight can be seen to be the good of the population. He is seen as noble, truthful, honorable, free, and courageous of all things [Geoffrey Chaucer, 142]. Two other characters that can be seen as honorable and not corrupt in society are the parson and the plowman. The parson is described as gentle and very poor, but focuses strongly on teaching the word of God honestly, and strongly believes on following through with your prayers. He is a benevolent character who doesn’t scorn those who have sinned, but rather tries to focus on improvement and tries to see the good in humanity rather than the negative.
The plowman is also seen as a good character for he is extremely hardworking, loves God and his neighbors [Chaucer, 153-155]. Both the friar and the merchant can metaphorically be examined as the large corporations and main CEO’s in our modern day society, who continually take from society to fuel the comfortable and luxurious lifestyles of the top one percent. The friar lives off of begging and taking money off of others so that he is able to live happily and extravagantly [Chaucer, 147], while the merchant is a man who is obsessed with how much money he has. The merchant is good at getting debts off of people and taking their money, but he is shallow in the fact that he makes sure that they don’t know that he owes them anything and therefore fueling his personal gain through greed and his corrupt and shady ways [Chaucer, 148].
The physician also represents the shadiness in the corporate world and it’s corruption for personal gain. The physician has a very corrupt practice focused around his own gain in wealth by falsely prescribing his patients in order for them to go to the apothecaries. Chaucer jokes that the doctor’s favorite medicine is gold as he is greedy and only cares about money [Chaucer, 152]. The miller represents greed and corruption in our world through obtaining his wealth by stealing from his neighbor’s, as well as the reeve who benefits himself by living off of the lord’s estate.
The summoner also represents greed as he arraigns those corruptly and manipulates his own power to be able to receive what he wants. An example of his corruptness is when the narrator explains how he arraigns in exchange for sex of young women and other men’s girlfriends or red wine [Chaucer, 157]. Finally, the last example of greed and corruptivity is the pardoner who uses the poor for his own material gain and counterfeits pardons in order to obtain money that he pockets for him and not the church. He admits that his products are of evil intentions and that he pardons for money and not to correct sin and that his products are of evil intention [Chaucer, 159].
The pardoner along with the large majority of the pilgrims that Chaucer becomes acquainted with all can be seen as representing the corrupted modern day corporate world of material greed seen with a sole purpose of filling their pockets with money. The greed of one’s personal gain over the love for God can be observed in Everyman. The play addresses humanities abandonment of their love for God in order to fulfill their own pleasures of worldly leisure. God says that no humans live in fear and that men are generally getting worse and greedier day by day (183). The prediction that was made thousands of years ago can be seen to hold true when looking at today’s modern society.
Mankind has grown so focused on personal gain, specifically with wealth and ranking, that action for the greater good has been reduced substantially. Societies concentration on religion has taken a large hit particularly in the last decade, where people have focused more on their own greed then the benefit of others and their love for God. God sends Death his messenger to strike the men who are greedy of wealth and worldly goods to be struck and sent to hell eternally. While Everyman makes the journey that Death has sent him on, he is abandoned by everyone he encounters such as Fellowship, Cousin, and Kindred who can think of nothing that would make them embark on the journey to help save the life of Everyman.
The abandonment by everyone shows humanity’s greed and focus on personal well being rather than helping the good of others, which is one of the main foundations of Christianity. Everyman continues on and finds Good Deeds who is to weak to help him, showing how greed has been such a focus of Everyman’s life rather than helping others. Through confessing his sins Good Deeds is able to come on the journey and they are joined by Beauty, Strength, and Discretion, which abandon them for their own sake as well.
As Everyman dies he tells the lesson of the story which should still be applied to our society today; “Take example, all ye that this do hear or see. How they that I loved best do forsake me; except my Good Deeds that biddeth truly”(198). Everyman’s lesson is one that can still easily be applied today, where our societal focus needs to shift away from personal gain and greed, as shown in Everyman, today there is an “everyman for himself” mentality. Our society needs to change to focus more on actions for the common good. Finally, abandonment of loyalty for greed caused by love can be observed in Chretien de Troyes Lancelot. The story of Lancelot tells the story of the internal struggle of a knight, Lancelot, who is in love with his lords lady. Although, Lancelot feels a tension of pledging his honor to both his lord King Arthur and his love, the Queen.
Although the story is romantic in some sense, it nicely represents the greed that humanity has to take what they want, and how those are willing to stop at nothing in their way regardless of who they need to be disloyal to. The story also shows the humility that Lancelot went through to get his love, by riding the cart with the dwarf which is usually reserved for criminals and causes confusion among many that he encounters. The cart can metaphorically be interpreted for the shame that Lancelot or De Troyes feels for betraying King Arthur for him own self-regard. On top of this, Lancelot encounters several different hostile knights who he continually must defend his character against.
These arrogant knights can be elucidated to be acting as Lancelot’s conscious for the guilt that he may feel for acting in the name of love over loyalty. Through a critical analysis of the four stories while applying it to our modern day society, it holds true that human greed and selfishness has stayed persistent over the many decades. Regardless of the multiple trends that greed can be found, whether it is for personal rank, wealth, abandonment of love for God for worldly goods, or even love, the trend can easily be observed in the popular mindset of our society today. Although it is something that is so commonly seen in our society, it is something that so often gets bypassed as we have all become so accustomed to our selfish ways.
The unfortunate truth is apparent, that no matter what we have to do if it is manipulation and abandonment of those that we love as in Hseing-Chien or use your powers in corrupt ways to obtain personal wealth such as those in The Canterbury Tales, these wrongs that have been done in the past sound like common selfish deeds done in our society today whether it be in the corporate world or in our day to day lives. After the critical analysis of these stories that took place all around the world at all different times it leaves the question to be raised- will the majority of society ever shift away from personal greed and selfishness to the greater good of humanity?