The Rich Brother: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:00 'The Rich Brother' Summary
  • 3:02 Analysis of 'The Rich Brother'
  • 5:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: J.R. Hudspeth

Jackie has taught college English and Critical Thinking and has a Master's degree in English Rhetoric and Composition

In this lesson, we'll be looking at Tobias Wolff's short story, 'The Rich Brother,' a story about class and responsibility. We'll take a look at a summary of the story as well as some analysis of the story's major themes.

''The Rich Brother'' Summary

''The Rich Brother'' tells the story of two brothers, Pete and Donald. Pete is financially successful and has a steady job as a real estate agent; Donald drifts from job to job and from location to location, joining religious groups. Donald often borrows money from Pete without ever paying it back.

Pete and Donald disagree on how to experience life. Pete uses his money to buy experiences he thinks are worthwhile (such as skydiving while high on cocaine), but Donald tries to find meaningful spiritual experiences through interacting with other people (such as living amongst other spiritual or religious folks or hearing the stories of other people).

When Donald calls Pete one week and says that he has quit a religious commune where he has been staying, Pete decides to pick him up and allow him to stay at his home for a while. Once Pete picks Donald up, the tension is immediate, since Pete gives Donald a hundred dollars to pay for food that Donald has eaten. Donald pays but is appalled by the large amount of money that is left over.

The car ride home continues uncomfortably. Donald criticizes Pete's emotional investment in his possessions, such as his Mercedes, while Pete criticizes Donald for not being serious about life or being financially responsible for himself. Pete reveals that he knows that Donald did not quit the commune, but was asked to leave by the commune's leader. Donald is reluctant to tell Pete why he was asked to leave, fearing Pete's criticism. But eventually he admits that he was asked to leave because he was careless with money and the group's property, giving away their food to those who needed it.

Donald accuses Pete of being afraid of him because he is different and has a purpose in life. Donald asks Pete if he remembers when as kids, Pete would punch and kick him instead of taking care of him. Uncomfortable, Pete changes the subject.

When the brothers stop to eat lunch, A hitchhiker calling himself Webster asks for a ride, using the story of a sick daughter to try to get help. Pete does not want to take him along, but Donald volunteers Pete's car. Along the way, Webster tells a story about harming his family to find gold. Pete guesses that Webster is trying to sell his claim to the gold and that the story is fake. He responds rudely to Webster's story. He then gets tired and asks Donald to drive for a bit. After waking up, Webster is gone and the car needs gas. Pete asks Donald to pay with the money Pete gave him, but Donald has given it to Webster. Pete and Donald argue; Pete is upset that Donald has been irresponsible, is too quick to believe others, and does not hold a traditional job. Donald is upset that Pete is judgmental and too focused on money. Pete declares that he is responsible for Donald even though he does not want to be, and Donald forces Pete to stop the car and gets out to go his own way.

Pete continues the drive home, but he thinks about his brother and about facing his wife at home and explaining that he dropped Donald off because he was sick of taking care of him. He slows the car and prepares to turn back and pick Donald up.

Analysis of ''The Rich Brother''

One of the questions that people often ask themselves is how responsible they are for others. If people are homeless, should we give to them to help them eat or are they responsible for their own welfare? If we have a family member that cannot support himself or herself, should we pick up the slack because they are family, or do we not sink our time and money into taking care of someone that we might feel should be adult enough to do it themselves? A well-known biblical quote, ''Am I my brother's keeper?'' is often used as an example of just how ancient these questions are.

Tobias Wolff's ''The Rich Brother'' explores the answer to these questions via Pete and Donald. Pete, who worries that Donald will ''always be on his hands,'' has to make a decision. His brother is absent-minded, does not seem as though he will ever fulfill typical societal expectations of getting a job and paying his own way, and gives away money as quickly as he acquires it.

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