One of the most famous examples of gullibility in fiction is Mark Twain’s fence-paining scene in the novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In that scene, Tom’s guardian, Aunt Polly, orders him to whitewash a stretch of wooden fence (30 feet long, 9 feet high).
Tom sees Jim the slave and offers to switch chores with him. In exchange for Jim painting the fence, Tom would go fetch water from the community pump. But Jim says no. Aunt Polly had told him not to accept Tom’s offer. She anticipated that Tom would probably try to avoid doing his chores.
Tom tries several more ploys, and finally, Jim starts to waver when Tom shows him his sore toe. Aunt Polly comes out and breaks up this conversation by beating Tom with her shoe. Tom later gets inspired when he sees Ben Rogers walking by. Tom begins to paint, very thoughtfully, acting as if he is totally absorbed by his painting. Ben comment about how it’s unfortunate that Tom has to work instead of play and Tom replies, “What do you call work?” When Ben asks “Why ain’t that work?” Tom replies “Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know, is it suits Tom Sawyer.”
Ben asks “Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?” to which Tom replies “Like it? Well I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?” Ben then begs Tom to let him paint, but Tom resists, finally relenting only when Ben offers him the rest of his apple.
When Ben got too tired, Tom lets Billy Fisher take over in exchange for a kite, Johnny Miller in exchange for a dead rat, and so on. Then, in the middle of the afternoon, from being a boy in poverty, with chores he had to do but did not want to, Tom was literally rolling in wealth. If he hadn’t ran out of whitewash, he would have bankrupted every boy in the village.
Tom reflects on the afternoon’s experience and derives a general law of human behavior, “namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”
People engage in various unpleasant and difficult recreational activities mainly because the “privilege costs them considerable money.”
Twain wrote about gullibility in more length in other works, including his masterpiece The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which was peopled with all kinds of swindlers and con artists).
In Puddn’head Wilson, Twain took on the topic of mass gullibility, as reflected in a whole town that has been hoodwinked over a few decades by a slave woman’s switching her baby in the nursery with the son of a wealthy landowner.
Financial gullibility was another topic Twain wrote about. His first novel, The Gilded Age, “A Tale of Today” (subtitle) was about the bubble investment mania that existed in the U.S after the Civil War.
The macro insanity of the bubble mentality was satirically captured by Twain and Dudley in the following passage:
Beautiful credit! The foundation of modern society. Who shall say that this is not the golden age of mutual trust, of unlimited reliance upon human promises? That is a peculiar condition of society which enables a whole nation to instantly recognize point and meaning in the familiar newspaper anecdote, which puts into the mouth of a distinguished speculator in lands and mines this remark: — “I wasn’t worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two millions of dollars.” (p. 193)
Other than the macro level of analysis which explains how groupthink occurs, there is the micro-level – the level on which one individual, pressured by another, makes a stupid decision. There is a character, Eli Bolton, in The Gilded Age. Eli is a mildly prosperous small-town Pennsylvania businessman. He was motivated more by kindness than greed.
“all his life Eli Bolton had been giving young fellows a lift, and shouldering the losses when things turned out unfortunately” (p. 190).
Even though Bolton had already bankrolled many dubious schemes by enthusiastic young men, he was unable to reject a request from Mr. Small, who came to him with a sob story, in which a $10,000 loan would make the difference between a failed venture (and a calamity for his wife and daughter) and certain bonanza.
Bolton had placed several other debts of Small’s in a file called “doubtful,” and even though he had his own pressing financial needs, he falls under the sway of Small’s persuasiveness and spent his time scraping together ten thousand dollars for this “brazen beggar, who had never kept a promise to him nor paid a debt” (p.193)
In the end of the book, after risking bankruptcy, and finally recouping some of his money back, Bolton again is approach by Mr. Small for an investment in another dubious scheme. Mr. Bolton had learned from his experiences and was able to cut Small off with a firm “no.”
In many ways, The Gilded Age is Twain’s most cynical piece of writing. The Senate and the judicial system were both depicted as highly corrupt. But the book is a great examination of the topic of gullibility. Twain himself was once a victim of a failed get rich quick investment scheme. Like most people who write about gullibility, Twain had personal experience from which to draw.
- Annals of Gullibility