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The Rich Brother
Submitted by Robert Waxler (profile)
Title and Author: The Rich Brother by Tobias Wolff
Genre: Short story
Theme: Sibling rivalry, family relationships, the meaning of "success"
Class type: Men
The Rich Brother is a story about two brothers, Pete and Donald. Pete, the older brother, is an American middle-class success story, with money from real estate, a wife, two daughters, a house, and a sailboat. Donald, the younger brother, lives alone, paints houses, stays, at times, in an ashram in Berkeley, and always owes his brother money.
When the story opens, Donald has been tossed out of a communal farm, and Pete, as usual, goes to pick him up. In the car, Pete gives Donald $100 to hold, and they talk briefly about childhood memories, focusing on the times Pete babysat for Donald after Donald's operation. Pete, apparently, would purposely hit Donald on the parts of his body most vulnerable because of the recent operation.
"Do you remember when you used to try to kill me?" Donald asks.
"Kids do those things," Pete replies.
And what about Pete's interior life? - Donald wants to know. Do you ever dream about us? - Donald asks Pete. Pete would never tell Donald such intimate details of his life - but in fact, he does have a repetitive dream. In the dream, Pete is blind and needs Donald's help.
So - as we talk about the richness of this relationship around the CLTL table, we begin to wonder about the richness of the story itself.
Where do we situate ourselves in the midst of this story?
Should we celebrate Donald's sensitivity and vulnerability more than Pete's sense of distance and exterior success?
If Pete really needed to ask Donald for help, would Donald be able to actually give it to him?
As the story moves on, the two brothers pick up Webster, a man who tells them a mythic tale about his own experiences with dreams and relatives - gold mines and greed, family and friends. Eventually, Donald gives the $100 gift from his brother to Webster in exchange for a share in a mythic gold mine, and when Pete finds out what his brother has done, he throws Donald out of the car.
Would we do that?
Where do we draw the line?
The story is not quite over, though. As Pete drives away alone, listening to the music on the radio, he is already "slowing down," turning back, thinking about his wife standing "before him in the doorway of his home," asking, "Where is he? Where is your brother?"
Yes, there is always another twist.
Wolff's story resonates with Biblical overtones - Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, the Prodigal Son - reminding readers that sibling rivalry is an ancient story as well as a modern one, part of the family romance, deeply embedded in the human condition.
"Why does Pete pick on Donald when they are growing up?" I ask.
The responses vary:
--Because he's jealous of Donald.
--That's what older brothers do.
--Their parents must have given Donald more attention because he was sick.
"And what about Webster?" I wonder aloud.
--Pete is right: Webster is a con artist.
--Donald trusts everyone - that's his problem.
--Pete trusts no one - that's his problem.
--Webster takes advantage of people.
--Webster is like Donald - he needs people to help him.
Near the end of our discussion, I raise what I consider the crucial question of the story: Who is the rich brother?
Most of the students say they assumed when first reading the story that Pete was clearly the only choice, but now they are not so sure. We are ready again to renew the conversation:
--Pete has the resources; he's the rich one.
--Pete is the responsible one; he wants to help his family, even his brother.
--Pete has worked hard; he deserves his material success.
--But Pete desires something more than he has - that's why he goes skydiving, for example.
"Yes, Donald needs Pete, but does Pete need Donald?" I ask again, reminding the group around the table about the recurring dream Pete tells Donald about.
Yes, perhaps Donald is the rich brother, some say. Carefree, trusting, spiritual. HE has depth, an interior self. In any case, the two brothers need each other. They are part of the same family - as we all are.