All Commentary
Thursday, March 13, 2014

If I Had a Million Dollars

Dorothy Parker. “The Standard of Living.” 1941.

From the very first sentence, Dorothy Parker’s “The Standard of Living” awakens not only admiration in the lover of literature, but attention in the lover of economics. “Annabel and Midge came out of the tea room with the arrogant slow gait of the leisured, for their Saturday afternoon stretched ahead of them,” she writes. In one simple sentence we are given a perfect picture of these young women. We know instantly, for example, that Annabel and Midge (and those names, when Parker was writing, were the equivalents of Brooklyn and Madison today) are not leisured. They have assumed the “arrogant slow gait of the leisured” because this is their afternoon off. And indeed, we are informed in the following paragraph that the young women are stenographers. “Annabel, two years longer in the stenographic department, had worked up to the wages of eighteen dollars and fifty cents a week; Midge was still at sixteen dollars. Each girl lived at home with her family and paid half her salary to its support.”

These are young, middle-class working women, about to enjoy a hard-earned afternoon off. And they will enjoy it by playing their favorite game.

Annabel had invented the game; or rather she had evolved it from an old one. Basically, it was no more than the ancient sport of what-would-you-do-if-you-had-a-million-dollars? But Annabel had drawn a new set of rules for it, had narrowed it, pointed it, made it stricter. Like all games, it was the more absorbing for being more difficult.

Annabel’s version went like this: You must suppose that somebody dies and leaves you a million dollars, cool. But there is a condition to the bequest. It is stated in the will that you must spend every nickel of the money on yourself.

…It was essential, of course, that it be played in passionate seriousness. Each purchase must be carefully considered and, if necessary, supported by argument. There was no zest to playing it wildly. 

And so the young women window shop. But they do so with “a seriousness that was not only proper but extreme.” When Annabel declares that she would spend some of her money on a silver fox coat, “It was as if she had struck Midge across the mouth. When Midge recovered her breath, she cried that she couldn’t imagine how Annabel could do such a thing—silver-fox coats were so common!” The friends do not speak to each other or play their game again until Annabel revises her decision and elects to imagine purchasing a mink coat instead. (As Virginia Postrel reminds us in her book The Power of Glamour, “Glamour is subjective.”)

But the crisis of this particular episode of the game is a different one. On a hot September day when it is far too uncomfortable to think about fur, the girls pause outside the window of a Fifth Avenue jewelry store. (In my mental movie of this story, the store is Tiffany & Co., of course, because there is no more glamorous jewelry store.) In the window, Annabel and Midge spot a necklace, “a double row of great, even pearls clasped by a deep emerald.” Instantly, the fur coats are forgotten.

On a dare, Midge goes into the store to price the pearls. Told that the price is $250,000, the girls react at first with disdain:

“Honestly!” Annabel said. “Can you imagine a thing like that?”

“Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars!” Midge said. “That’s a quarter of a million dollars right there!”

“He’s got his nerve!” Annabel said.

And then with despair they realize that their game of endless wealth has become subject to the chilling effects of scarcity.

But Parker knows that the effervescence of youth cannot be contained for long. And the final sentences of the story begin the game again. But this time:

Look. Suppose there was this terribly rich person, see? You don’t know this person, but this person has seen you somewhere and wants to do something for you. Well, it’s a terribly old person, see? And so this person dies, just like going to sleep, and leaves you ten million dollars. Now, what would be the first thing you’d do?

I don’t know about Annabel and Midge, but I’d buy that necklace.

Virginia Postrel has observed that glamour “focuses preexisting, largely unarticulated desires on a specific object, intensifying longing. It thus allows us to imaginatively inhabit the ideal and, as a result, to believe—at least for a moment—that we can achieve it in real life.” She adds later that “glamour leads us to imagine ourselves in the other: another person, another place, and another life. . . . Glamour’s promise of escape and transformation can create an enjoyable but transient experience, provide a source of solace in difficult circumstances, or offer direction toward real-world action.” Highly unlikely ever to have the opportunity to spend $10 million, $1 million, or even, at their salaries, $100 on something glamorous and desirable, Annabel and Midge play their game to soothe their frustrations and escape their daily grind.

Guy de Maupassant’s story “The Necklace” must have been on Parker’s mind when she wrote “The Standard of Living.” Here Madame Loisel, the beautiful young wife of a middle-class Parisian clerk, is invited to an expensively elegant party. She borrows a diamond necklace from a wealthy friend and loses it. She and her husband must then borrow the money to replace the necklace. They spend the next 10 years in grinding poverty while they repay their debts. At the end of the story, we discover that the lost necklace was made of artificial stones, and Madame Loisel has destroyed her youth, beauty, and happiness to attain something that was never real.

All of this reminds me of my favorite economic fairy tale—the episode of the poor man’s son in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. This young man, “whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition,” is discontented with his poverty.

He finds the cottage of his father too small for his accommodation, and fancies he should be lodged more at his ease in a palace. He is displeased with being obliged to walk a-foot, or to endure the fatigue of riding on horseback. He sees his superiors carried about in machines, and imagines that in one of these he could travel with less inconveniency. He feels himself naturally indolent, and willing to serve himself with his own hands as little as possible; and judges, that a numerous retinue of servants would save him from a great deal of trouble.

The poor man’s son then labors his whole life to attain these luxuries, enduring “more fatigue of body and more uneasiness of mind than he could have suffered through the whole of his life from the want of them.” After a lifetime of this work, and of toadying and obsequiousness to “those whom he hates,” he ends in despair and misery. “He begins at last to find that wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility, no more adapted for procuring ease of body or tranquility of mind than the tweezer-cases of the lover of toys; and like them too, more troublesome to the person who carries them about with him than all the advantages they can afford him are commodious.”

We should not fault the poor man’s son for his ambition. We should, however, fault him for the technique he uses to pursue his ambitions. “For this purpose he makes his court to all mankind; he serves those whom he hates, and is obsequious to those whom he despises.” Caught up in the glamour of wealth and ease, he sacrifices his character and his comfort in order to procure it. As Postrel comments, “The young man’s picture of the good life—the glamorous vision that inspires his quest—omits important details. It leaves out years of laborious effort, showing only the result of hard work. . . .Glamour always obscures the difficulties and distracting details of life as it is really lived.” Chasing an impossible dream of wealth without work, the poor man’s son destroys his happiness.

Annabel and Midge are much wiser than Madame Loisel and the poor man’s son. Annabel and Midge know that wealth without work is a dream. They know they will almost certainly never have the necklace in the window. Their game—like my grandmother’s Depression-era trips to the movies—provides them with a brief time of fantasy and escape that allows them to return to their work with renewed energy and inspiration. Midge can hope to climb the ladder of the stenography pool the way that Annabel has. Annabel can hope to manage the pool one day. They can help make their families, and themselves, better off, bit by bit and by working hard. They understand how to balance their ambition with their reality. And they know that you can take a great deal of pleasure from fur coats and expensive necklaces without ever needing to own them.