‘The Whistle’ by Benjamin Franklin: Short Story Analysis
‘The Whistle’ is a parabolic short story-cum-letter penned on the 10th of November 1779 by American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. Franklin wrote this parabolic short story-cum-letter at the age of 73 to Anne Louise Brillon de Jouy. She was a French musician and composer. In 1777, Anne composed the Marche des insurgents or March of the Insurgents to celebrate an American victory in the American Revolutionary War. She became a friend of Benjamin Franklin, with whom she regularly corresponded during and after his stay in her home city during the American Revolution. The story of ‘The Whistle’ is told to her by Benjamin Franklin as Madame Brillon loved stories, and since he was writing to her after a very long time, he thought he might share this story of his childhood with her. Benjamin Franklin is remembered as a statesman, author, publisher, scientist, inventor, and diplomat. The American people are indebted for his service to their country.
‘The Whistle’ begins with Franklin apologizing to Madame Brillon for not answering her previous two Wednesdays and Saturday correspondence. Since he had received another of her letters this Wednesday, he felt compelled and beholden to answer her letters. Franklin also mentions that her husband, Mr. B or Monsieur Brillon, had kindly sent him word that he was setting out to return to Madame Brillon. It indicates that her husband wanted at least one letter from Franklin to carry to his wife. Therefore, Franklin finally sat down to write a letter to Madame Brillon despite being indolent and averse to writing. This is not particularly true because Benjamin Franklin loved to write; probably, he is trying to indicate here that he was somewhat tardy in his correspondence.
Apparently, in one of the previous two Wednesdays and the Saturday letter, Madame Brillon had mentioned a description of heaven or Paradise and that she wanted to reside there one day. In this earthly life, she plans to draw as much good from it as possible to prepare for her future heavenly home. When I read this part of the short story-cum-letter, it reminded me of a quote I came upon recently: “Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die”. It is entirely accurate in its analysis of human character. We spend a lot of our lives on Earth preparing for our afterlife, but that is the least likely place where we all wish to go. Even if we do want to go there, we hopefully don’t want to go there soon. Benjamin Franklin, a highly astute personality, recognized this aspect and probably wanted to teach Madame Brillon a lesson about the false estimates we make about the value of certain things in life. These inaccurate estimates which we create and then live out our lives are very much in a neutral person’s eye a reasonable estimate of where such a person will land up in the next life – heaven or hell. We prioritize our lives on wrong things, people, and places, leading ourselves to our eternal doom. Franklin wants to bring this to the mind of Madame Brillon. He is trying to teach her to prioritize her time and effort on things that are worthwhile and not on things and people that are detrimental to our way towards heaven.
Benjamin narrates the whistle’s story, which he procured when he was a lad of seven years with the help of several copper coins given to him by his friends when he was on holiday. With all that money, he bought a mere whistle. His family, brothers, sisters, and cousins derided him for his actions, saying that he had paid four times the sum of an actual worthless whistle. They also try to make him feel horrid by reminding him that if he had thought correctly and only paid the sum of the whistle to the shopkeeper and nothing more, he could have bought so many other beautiful things. This example would always remain with him all his life. After that, he was never tempted to buy unnecessary stuff while young reminding himself of the money he had paid for the whistle. As he grew older and wiser, he realized that everyone he met always paid more than required for their whistles. In other words, they were giving more importance to things, people, and places that needed the least priority in their life. He speaks about the six categories of people who pay too much for the whistle.
- A person ambitious of court favor used to spend too much time attending at court. He gave up his repose, freedom or liberty, virtue, and good values, and friends to attain favor at the court. Thus, he paid too much for his whistle. It indicates a person who is overambitious to succeed in life and move in rich circles and win the wealthy and affluent favor. Such a person loses his popularity with his dear friends, loses his peace of mind, and his good values.
- A person who fond of popularity regularly engages in political bustles, neglecting his affairs. Such a person too pays too much for his whistle. It indicates a person who always likes to live in the limelight but forgets the most important people.
- The example of a miser who gives up every kind of comfortable living, the pleasure of doing good to others, his fellow citizens’ esteem, and the joys of warm friendship in his pursuit of wealth. But his wealth gives him no happiness on its own. Thus, he too pays too high a price for his whistle.
- A man of pleasure who gives in to his corporeal senses and ruins his health in its pursuit. Corporeal senses included here would mean sex, drinking, smoking, drug addiction, gambling, and feasting. Such a person never improves his mind intellectually or his fortune because he keeps spending it on the enjoyment of his primary senses. Thus, he would give too much for his whistle and fall ill at the end of it.
- A man of fond appearance who is handsome, wears fine clothes, lives in a fine house, has the best furniture, good fortune, and equipages but goes into debt for it all and lands in prison. Such a person will end his career in jail for not paying his debts because he spends more than his earnings. He too pays too much for his whistle.
- Lastly, the example of a sweet-tempered girl who marries an ill-tempered brute pays too much for her whistle by selecting the wrong husband. The last example is something that even Madame Brillon could relate to because she knew as a woman what it meant to be married to a terrible husband. There were plenty of them in her time.
Benjamin Franklin gives all these descriptions of the six people who paid too much for their whistles. Notice that only one is a woman, which indicates that women’s suffrage was in its early stages at this point. It would take a very long time before American women were deemed equal citizens of America to be able to vote. Franklin depicts the miser as a ‘poor man’ indicating that he may be wealthy but lacks life’s riches. So, Franklin pities him. According to Franklin, where the sensual man is concerned, his ideology of spending everything he has in sensual pursuits is erroneous. So he calls the man a ‘mistaken’ man. Franklin only pities the man who ends in a debtor’s prison, exclaiming ‘alas’, but even such a man is highly mistaken in his principles.
By explaining the six types of people, Benjamin Franklin makes it clear to Madame Brillon that if she wished to enter heaven, she would have to prioritize her life and the things in her life correctly and carefully. For it is the way we conduct ourselves in this life with things, virtues, and people who matter that will lead us to a better afterlife, or, more importantly, shall make us peaceful to enter the afterlife. Benjamin Franklin has made the letter seem very serious. Thus, to lighten the atmosphere, he tells Madame Brillon that if he were made to auction his whistle for a lot or a taste of King John’s apples, he would be in a spot because he loved King John’s delicious apples. It also indicates his political leanings, that he would not give in to the British Colonial power where the USA’s independence was concerned. Note that it was King George the third who was the British monarch during Benjamin Franklin’s time.
The short story-cum-letter ends on a happy note, but Franklin has made his point clear on heaven and the afterlife. The point is that one needed to live a good life and be at peace to know that the person’s afterlife would be secure.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story by American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. I hope to read, review, and study more American fiction and non-fiction works like these during this winter till January 2021, to celebrate the completion of the critical 2020 US Presidential Elections. During this period, I will celebrate the rich literary heritage of America. So, if you are looking for more American bookish content, this is the site you must keep watching. If you wish to learn more about me, you can check out my little memoir titled The Reclusive Writer and & Reader of Bandra here. I hope to read and analyze more works by and about Benjamin Franklin in the coming days.
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