Rich Brother by Tobias Wolff

The Rich Brothers is a story of two brothers, their sibling rivalry and their contrast in everything including worldly success and failure. While Pete is rich and Donald is poor by the end of the story we are left wondering who among the two is actually rich in the real sense of the term.

Pete, the older among the sibling is rich and successful. He exemplifies the American middle class dream — nice family life with a wife and two daughters, a house, a sailboat, and every other thing that money can buy you — of success that his hard work in real estate business could attain for him. Donald, the younger brother is just his opposite. He lives alone and survives out of painting houses. At times, he lives in a Berkeley ashram and lives in financial debt.

Pete comes to rescue Donald out of his difficulties and donates him money right in the beginning of this story. The two are driving in a car when Pete gifts him $100. However, there is a subtle sub-text of sibling rivalry in the background during their childhood as also when they grow up. Donald for instance, reminds Pete how as a kid he wanted to kill him, to which Pete replies, «children always do such things».

Pete doesn’t bother to or perhaps doesn’t like to discuss his personal life with Donald, yet Donald asks him if he ever dreams of his younger brother. Pete, in fact has a recurring dream that he is blind and needs his brother’s assistance. Perhaps, the author has metaphorically hinted at the blindness inherent in material success and in need of genuine spiritual assistance from people like Donald.

The story moves further even as we discover more contrasting characteristics of the two brothers. In comes a character Webster that tells them a mythic tale of his own dream experience involving goldmine and greed. Donald gives away $100 gifted to him by Pete. But Pete throws him out of the car on learning what he has done.

Meanwhile, Pete ponders what would he answer his wife when she would ask him about his brother? Perhaps, he is not worried. Material wealth has blind his conscience; his sensitivity: «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)

Wolff’s story parallels the biblical story of Cain and Abel. One brother is spiritual, God-oriented, helping and reaching out to others, while the other is materialistic, has least concern with God and can even go to the extent of trying to kill or hurt his brother. The contrast in the character of the two brother compels us to ask who is the rich brother? The one that has money or the one who lacks material wealth, but is endowed with human virtues? Who really needs whom? Does Donald really need money? If he really needed money, why would he give it away to Webster without a second thought? Pete can only pretend that he doesn’t need Donald. He can only pretend that he can go alone and will answer his acts toward his brother.

The author through contradictory characters of the two brothers has tried to dig the real meaning of wealth. A person can remain unfulfilled despite all his wealth as shown through the metaphor of dream where Pete is blind and in need for assistance. Donald is pious, happy and harbors no grudge against Pete, and therefore, is quite capable of helping Pete learn how to be a good person.

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