What Children’s Literature Teaches Us About Money: ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’

What Children’s Literature Teaches Us About Money: Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’

This story doesn’t end the way you remember.

Photo credit: Joseph Francis, CC BY 2.0.

I’m not sure when I first encountered this story—was it a picture book? Was it Sesame Street?—but I feel like I’ve always known it.

In some ways we’ve all always known it, and what it implies: a dishonest person can make as much money off a false idea as a true one; an emperor more concerned with appearance than governance can lead both himself and his subjects astray; citizens can speak the truth, but that doesn’t mean the people in power will change the way they behave.

Because that’s how the story ends, as Andersen wrote it.

Let’s recap. There was an emperor who, and I’ll quote from Project Gutenberg here, “thought so much of new clothes that he spent all his money in order to obtain them; his only ambition was to be always well dressed.”

Knowing that the emperor cares more about appearance than about truth, two men decide to run a scam. They tell the emperor that they have the ability to weave a cloth that “possessed the wonderful quality of being invisible to any man who was unfit for his office or unpardonably stupid.”

The emperor loves this. Not only will he get a new outfit from this cloth, but he’ll also be able to prove which of his advisers are fit for office. He pays the men a bunch of money and they start pretending to weave.

When the emperor sends his advisers to view the cloth, they don’t want to admit that the scammers’ looms appear empty. Instead, they ask the scammers to explain the pattern they’re weaving so that they can go back to the emperor and repeat what they have heard. Yes, they say, the cloth is beautiful. The thread is of the finest gold.

And thus the kingdom becomes corrupt. The scammers weave falsehoods, which are both reported to and promoted by the emperor. The scammers ask for more money to finish the suit they’re making, and the emperor provides it. The emperor is finally presented with his new outfit and discovers that he cannot see it, but it’s already too late; to admit that he was wrong would be to admit that he is unfit for his own job.

Instead, he schedules a procession, so that all of his subjects can see his new clothes and respond appropriately. As the emperor parades through the town in his new suit, a child calls out “but he doesn’t have any clothes on!”

Here’s the final paragraph of the story:

“But he has nothing on at all,” said a little child at last. “Good heavens! listen to the voice of an innocent child,” said the father, and one whispered to the other what the child had said. “But he has nothing on at all,” cried at last the whole people. That made a deep impression upon the emperor, for it seemed to him that they were right; but he thought to himself, “Now I must bear up to the end.” And the chamberlains walked with still greater dignity, as if they carried the train which did not exist.

In other words: a child may speak the truth; a whole citizenry may spread the truth as far as they can; the government will keep on functioning as if the truth were never said.

There are versions of this story where the emperor denounces the dishonest weavers; where he becomes a changed, less vain person. These are newer versions, written by other authors. They’re the ones that use the child’s cry “but he has nothing on!” to remind children that they too can speak out against injustice.

But Andersen was very specific in his depiction of human nature, even if that made his original stories darker than their inevitable adaptations. (Hello, The Little Mermaid.) In this story, he reminds us that a man who cares more about himself than about the truth can be manipulated by people who care most of all about money; that an entire group of advisers and chamberlains can pretend they do not know what is really going on; that people who share true information will be ignored.

The scammers get money, the advisers keep their jobs (which means they get money), and the emperor, who already has money, gets to maintain the fiction he wants to believe about himself. That’s what this story tells us; that money is the thread that connects one lie to another, and those of us with the most money can control which lies become an impervious suit.


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