Study Guide

The Luminaries Wealth/Class

By Eleanor Catton


He did not yet know that a goldfield was a place of muck and hazard, where every fellow was foreign to the next man, and foreign to the soil; where a grocer's cradle might be thick with color, and a lawyer's cradle might run dry; where there were no divisions. Moody was some twenty years Balfour's junior, and so he spoke with deference, but he was conscious that Balfour was a man of lower standing than himself, and he was conscious also of the strange miscellany of persons around him, whose estates and origins he had not the means to guess. His politeness therefore had a slightly wooden quality, as a man who does not often speak with children lacks any measure for what is appropriate, and so holds himself apart, and is rigid, however much he wishes to be kind (I.1.43).

Here, the narrator is describing the great equalizing powers of the goldfields. Moody is pretty class conscious and used to greater divisions among men in society, so apparently Hokitika is a bit of a shock, and he has to figure out how to communicate "properly" with everyone.

Thomas Balfour felt this condescension, and was delighted. He had a playful distaste for men who spoke, as he phrased it, 'much too well,' and he loved to provoke them—not to anger, which bored him, but to vulgarity, He regarded Moody's stuffiness as if it were a fashionable collar, made in some aristocratic style, that was unbearably confining to the wearer—he saw all the conventions of polite society in this way, as useless ornamentations—and it amused him, that the man's refinement caused him to be so ill at ease (I.1.44).

Meanwhile, Balfour apparently was amused by the fact that Moody was so uncomfortably conscious of their class differences; instead of it making him feel bad about himself, he just felt sorry for Moody's discomfort.

Had he interrupted a secret council of some kind? But what kind of council could possibly comprise such a diverse range of race, income, and estate? (I.1.199).

Moody becomes even more puzzled by the mix of men in the room when he realizes that they're actually all there as part of some common mission, and Moody (being much more traditional) has trouble figuring out what could bring such men together. Weren't you listening to Balfour, Moody—gold, of course!

He did not mention that his skill was as a carver. He had never sold pounamu. He would not sell pounamu. For one could not put a price upon a treasure, just as one could not purchase mana, and one could not make a bargain with a god. Gold was not a treasure—this Tauwhare knew. Gold was like all capital in that it had no memory: its drift was always onward, away from the past (I.3.163).

Te Rau thinks of the greenstone he mines as something that is entirely different/outside of the world of commerce; it's sacred, not something that is (or should be) be used to create wealth. Gold has to do with money and capital, which, according to him, drive modern life forward but neglect history and the past. Hmm, probably not surprising that an indigenous resident of Hokitika might want to take a stand about certain things being sacred/not up for grabs while a bunch of foreigners come in trying to get rich off their gold, huh?

'Gold,' she whispered. 'It's gold. Up and down the corset-bones, and in the lining, and all the way about.' Her dark eyes were searching his face, pleading with him. 'Gold,' she said. 'I don't know how it got there. It was there when I woke up—sewn in' (I.7.6).

This is the moment when Anna realized that her dress was filled with gold—gold that we later found out was stolen from Crosbie Wells, sewn into Lydia Wells's dresses, shipped under Lauderback's name to blackmail him, rerouted by Crosbie Wells when he figured out what Carver and Lydia were up to, shipwrecked with the Titania when it went down, and then sold to Anna when she bought Lydia's dresses from the Titania's salvage sale. And then Quee discovered it and started stealing it/melting it down while Anna was stoned out of her mind. As you can see, this particular example of wealth was put to a lot of different purposes …

'Recently I heard a politician speak who called the gold a moral scourge. It is true that on the diggings I have seen much degradation but there was degradation prior to the strike as well. I fancy that it is the thought of men like me becoming rich that has most politicos afraid' (II.9.30).

Crosbie Wells wrote these words in a letter to his brother. It sounds like he believes that some men were afraid of the democratizing function of gold—that is, of its potential to elevate men of low breeding to wealth (and status) instantly.

Next the Magistrate's Court heard the testimonies of Mannering, Quee, Löwenthal, Clinch, Nilssen, and Frost—all of whom described the discovery and deployment of the fortune discovered in Crosbie Wells's cottage quite as if the retorted gold had indeed been discovered upon the Aurora. Mannering testified to the conditions under which the Aurora had been sold, and Quee to the fact of the ore's retortion. Löwenthal detailed his interview with Alistair Lauderback on the night of the 14th of January, during which he learned about the death of Crosbie Wells. Clinch testified that he had purchased the estate the following morning. Nilssen described how the gold had been hidden in Crosbie Wells's cottage, and Frost confirmed its value. They made no mention whatsoever of Anna's gowns, nor of the foundered barque, Godspeed, nor of any of the concerns and revelations that had precipitated their secret council in the Crown Hotel three months ago (IV.4.164).

When Emery Staines and Anna Wetherell end up on trial, several of the witnesses seem to collectively agree not to share certain information relating to Crosbie Wells's gold—for example, the fact that it was found in Anna's gowns. The whole mystery of the treasure and all that happened to/with it gets kept pretty much under a hat…even though it's been at the center of the whole book.

The safe was empty.
'Where's my money?' said Crosbie Wells (V.1.77-78).

This moment occurs in a flashback to the moment Crosbie found out that Lydia stole his "bonanza" from his big strike. In one moment, Crosbie went from a very wealthy man to the pauper most people in Hokitika knew him as.

Emery Staines, arriving at the camp station, was surprised to see that the Aurora's box was flagged, meaning that a yield had been submitted. He requested the gold escort to unlock the box. Inside there was a neat lattice of smelted gold bars. Staines took one of the bars in his hand. 'If I asked you to turn your back a moment,' he said presently, 'while I transferred the contents of this box elsewhere, what would be your price?' (IX.2.1).

This is a flashback to when Emery found that Quee had somehow been finding gold on what he thought was a duffer claim. Since he was trying to prevent Frank Carver from making any money off of his claim, he wanted to hide the money immediately rather than having it banked under the Aurora's name.

'There's no difference,' Wells insisted, reaching for another piece of meat. 'You might not like it—but you have to admit—there's no difference. It's just one mineral or another. One rock or another.'
'No,' Tauwhare said. He looked angry. 'It is not the same' (IX.4.3-4).

Wells and Tauwhare are debating whether gold and greenstone are essentially just the same. From Tauwhare's musings earlier, we know that he thinks of gold as something that has to do with capital and exchange—something utilitarian—whereas greenstone seems to represent something more private and sacred for him. For that reason, he doesn't tell Crosbie about his mad skills in carving greenstone; that's just for him, and not for sale/hire.

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