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Jack and the Beanstalk: A Tale of Fiscal Responsibility

Frontispiece and Title Page of 1807 Edition

Frontispiece and Title Page of 1807 Edition

A Brief Summary of the Tale

Jack and the Beanstalk, unlike many of the world's most infamous fairy tales, was not a product of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson. The earliest known printing of the book was written by Benjamin Tabart in 1807 (see the frontispiece above). The story has been reprinted numerous times throughout the next 200 years, but typically includes a witless protagonist (Jack), climbing a magic beanstalk, manipulating the wife of the Giant, stealing prized possessions, and ultimately killing the Giant in a final act of--supposed--heroism.

Jack lives with his mother in abject poverty. They are, in fact, so destitute that they must sell off the dried-up family cow, Milky-White to earn enough money for food and commerce. Since Jack is the man of his house, he is tasked with facilitating the sale, and bringing the proceeds back to his mother. Along the road, Jack encounters a peddler who offers to trade Milky-White for a few "magic" beans. Fortunately for Jack, the beans actually do turn out to be magic, and the resulting beanstalk grows--at an alarming rate--into the clouds, farther than the eye can see. Jack, being the young, able-bodied man that he is, climbs the beanstalk, only to discover a wealthy Giant and his wife, living in a castle among the clouds. Finally, after several encounters with the Giant, during which Jack steals gold, a magical hen, and an enchanted harp, he is chased by the Giant down the beanstalk. Jack uses an ax to cut down the beanstalk, keeps his loot, becomes wealthy, and thus ends of tale.

This article will examine the events of the fairy tale around the framework of financial responsibility. How do the consequences Jack faces with the Giant communicate a lesson for children and adults about the nature of want, need, and entitlement? Are there tips and tricks that we can take away from this tale and apply to our own lives?

Jack's mother throws the magic beans out of the kitchen window


Hardcover, 2006. E. Nesbit (Author); Matt Tavares (Illustrator)

Is Jack and the Beanstalk Really About Money?

The simple answer is: yes and no.

As we recall, the entire story is driven by a genuine need for security--a need for food, but more prominently, a need for wealth and a means to procure food. In the beginning of Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack and his mother are literally starving for food. Their cow, Milky-White was the only means by which they were sustained, and now she has stopped producing anything at all. The story is unclear about its intent in introducing the peddler with the magic beans, but what what is clear is that the events of the tale from this point-of-procurement onward are driven by a need, which morphs into greed, and crescendos, culminating in the destruction of the beanstalk and the Giant. The story introduces each of the stolen items in a particular order--I will argue--to build understanding and responsibility on the part of the reader.

Now let's look at the specific lesson conveyed by each of the stolen items from the giant's castle: the bag of gold, the hen that lays the golden eggs*, and the enchanted harp.



Jack Steals a Bag of Gold

We have already established that Jack and his mother live in such poverty that they must sell the only possession they have in hopes of warding off hunger a little while longer.

When Jack makes his first trek up the beanstalk, he encounters the Giant's wife, who is moved by the pleas of hunger and thirst. She is so moved, in fact, that when her husband comes in to ask about the delicious, human smell coming from the kitchen, she tells him it must be the remnants of a child he'd previously eaten. Satisfied with the answer, he sits down, falls asleep, and now, Jack has the opportunity to steal the bag of gold.

No real cautionary lesson is learned here, other than: A fixed amount of money, with no income, will not provide you with lasting wealth. As the story says, "they lived on the bag of gold for some time, but at last they came to the end of it, and Jack made up his mind to try his tuck once more at the top of the beanstalk" (Jacobs, 1860). While Jack and his mother have not behaved irresponsibly with the gold--as far as we know--they nevertheless could not have survived forever on a fixed sum. This drives Jack to make the subsequent decision to venture up the beanstalk. Note that the story does not mention disappointment from Jack or his mother when the gold runs out. Nor were they surprised that it did not last indefinitely. The bag of gold, as a literary tool, provides temporary relief, but does not substitute for the security of the salary once provided by Milky-White. Therefore, the tale has no choice but to continue.

In many ways, the actions of the tale are a nod to the old Chinese proverb, "Give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime." Jack must find his own way to fish.

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Jack Steals the Hen


Jack Steals the Hen with the Golden Eggs

Once Jack decides to venture up the beanstalk for a second time, the tone of the story changes. Jack's initial trip served only an exploratory function; however, this time, he is specifically looking for something to steal and sell. Luckily, he stumbles upon the Giant ordering his hen to lay golden eggs.

The golden eggs represent 2 distinct income possibilities:

  1. The eggs are symbolic of employment. Jack's mother suggested that they should open a shop with the money earned from the sale of Milky-White, and these eggs can be sold in that shop. This would have been an intensely-envied level of financial security not often attainable by the poor and working classes in the early nineteenth century.
  2. The hen itself is representative of a principal investment, while the resulting golden eggs are the dividends gained by maintaining the principal balance. While this may seem to be a very modern construct, the Amsterdam Stock Exchange (founded by the Dutch East India Company) actually started the trend of investment banking in 1602 ("Investment Banking"). By having access to the hen, Jack controls the means to turn money into more money.

As it happens, were Jack and the Beanstalk to end here, Jack would not have to cut down the beanstalk, the Giant would survive, and Jack would have the permanent means to provide for his family. However...

Jack Steals the Harp


Jack Steals the Enchanted Harp

"...Jack was not content, and it wasn't long before he determined to have another try at his luck up there at the top of the beanstalk" (Jacobs, 1860).

Here we see the tone of the fairy tale change once again. Jack does not climb the beanstalk out of curiosity, or need to provide for his family, but now out of boredom and a need for entertainment. Perhaps another clue to Jack's folly lies in the harp's reaction to the theft. When Jack leaves the Giant's castle with the harp, it cries out "Master! Master!" to prevent his leaving. This awakens the Giant, and acts as a catalyst to the climax of the tale. Jack is forced to destroy the beanstalk to prevent the Giant's destruction of his village, but of course, Jack would have been responsible for the attack.

As we have previously established, Jack's acquisition of the hen has secured his family's prosperity. The harp is a comment on greed, warning the wealthy against hoarding wealth and warning the poor against becoming that way themselves. Jack does successfully acquire the harp, but in order to do so, he must destroy the pathway between his village and the mystical castle in the clouds where he discovered his new-found wealth. Let's not forget that he literally murders the Giant in order to keep what he has stolen. Allowing for the possibility that this interpretation reflects the author's intent, this does explain the irrationality of the ending to Jack and the Beanstalk.

According to the 1807, 1860, and 1890 imaginings of the fairy tale, Jack's future is bright and vibrant. The harp brings in travelers from near and far, to whom they sell the golden eggs, and the resultant wealth is sufficient enough for Jack to marry a princess, and live happily ever after. This is a beautiful ending, but that is not how marriages were arranged with royalty. The tone of the ending is a sarcastic comment about Jack's heroism. Perhaps this would be dream of those who want to be wealthy, but the last segment definitely cautions the reader against procuring wealth for it's own sake.

So, What IS the Moral of the Story?

To summarize the key points of the text:

  1. Initial sums of money are beneficial, for repayment of debt or building an appropriate living space, though it is not sufficient to create a lasting plan.
  2. Regular income and smart investment are the keys to creating continual financial security.
  3. Greed has no place in a financial world if we are properly care for all members of our community.

There is a bit of a deus ex machina in the tale when the peddler provides them with a handout in the form of the magic beans. Did the peddler know that the beans were magic? Or, did they acquire magical properties when they were tossed out of the house by Jack's mother? These questions go unanswered by the storytellers. The peddler does not even appear again once he concludes the transaction for Milky-White. However, if the peddler did know that the beans were magical--or even if he did not--there is strong evidence to suggest that the authors of Jack and the Beanstalk believed that everyone deserves assistance once in a while. Jack's story shows us that there is a limit to how much we--as a society--need, and security should be an attainable dream for all families.

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Joseph Jacobs, English Fairy Tales (London: David Nutt, 1890), no. 13, pp. 59-67.

Wikipedia contributors. "Investment banking." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 Jul. 2015. Web. 22 Jul. 2015.

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