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Exchange Value

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The focal point of this paper is to present a critical analysis applying a biographical strategy for Charles Johnson’s short story “Exchange Value”. In this short story money is presented as a mode of power and by the term ‘exchange value’ the author demonstrates a brief insight into the heart of human existence and psyche where the value of human nature is evaluated in the balance of exchange rate of money.  (Roberts, 2006, 19)

In an apparent sense the plot of this story is comparatively straightforward with a distinct sting at the tail. This is the story of two brothers, Cooter and Loftis, who breaks into the house of a freak old West Indian lady named Miss Bailey and found that beyond the usual assumption of her being a poor person by wealth she actually possessed a huge amount in form of company bond papers and liquid cash. The brothers calculated the sum to be around a million dollars. (Roberts, 2006, 22)

But the dilemma of the story starts here. The brothers feel undecided about the money and the nature of sending the fortune. It soon became obvious that the brothers were completely in a catch-22 position about whether to send the fortune or to keep it safely with them. This predicament appears to us in not such an alien manner but the matter that was the focal point of the problem was to choose a path that the old lady had chosen for herself. All her life she had gathered this affluence only to leave these at her death without being able to spend them. The brothers appear to follow the same path of restoration of the riches. (Roberts, 2006, 23)

It is a general nature of the readers to detach or disconnect an art form from its artist. At places this theory holds quite good but in the case of Charles Richard Johnson his creation remains closely attached with him and his background and obviously this basic philosophy of life- his religious faith. The author was born at Evanston in April 23, 1948. He completed his doctoral study in the field of philosophy during 1973-76 and was a Buddhist by religion. (Roberts, 2006, xii)

The basic measures of the story “Exchange Value” can be drawn directly from this phase. Charles R Johnson’s empathy towards philosophy drove the conclusion of the story towards an end that could justified as completely philosophic in nature. This philosophy is dominantly backed by the teachings of Buddha where the preacher exerts a similar non utilitarian valuation of riches. It is true that the brothers in the story ere predominantly motivated by greed in the first place and it never seized to exist in any part of the story but the main aspect that the author Charles R Johnson incorporated in the story is the ultimate lack of utility or valuation of the fortune that brothers failed to notice. (Roberts, 2006, 14)

It is obvious that there remains always a value for materials that could be evaluated at a scale of money even if it is not utilized but it is still a greater truth that without proper usage any material would loose its current value is remained unutilized. This is exactly what went wrong with the brothers and specifically with the lady before them. Thus in a way it can be mentioned that this story is a patch of Buddhist philosophy incorporated under the perspective and parameters of the market economy induced world of the 1990’s. (Roberts, 2006, viii)

In a structural manner this story is related to Charles R Johnson’s background too. This becomes evident with the usage of lack slang that would be hardly recognized by the population living outside this specific community. The diction comprises of colloquial expressions like “Got Ovuh” and descriptions that indicates of similes like “spoiled banana” that mostly refer to the black or West Indian community’s visual expressions. Application of this diction makes the story alive and realistic and we feel that the author himself is standing by the occurrence and narrating us the story. (Roberts, 2006, 23)

Charles R Johnson’s career as a reporter and a political cartoonist during 1969-70 in Chicago Tribune is yet another example of how the persona and experience of the authors reflects the nature of his creation. The characterization of the brothers reflects a keen eye for details and humor reflected there. This at par with a cartoonist as caricature needs that specific amount satire and expression that was so needed for the portrayal of Cooter and Loftis and even with the dark description of Miss Bailey. (Roberts, 2006, ii)

The involvement of the author in the movement concerning black movement and indulging him in black studies and art is also evident in the body of the text. (Roberts, 2006, xiii) His portrayal of the brothers is more featured in a profound humane manner than being critical about these two small time crooks. At certain points they even appear to be quite loveable. This would not have happened with the author being an activist of the movement and the author has proved his roots in every line of his short story “Exchange value”.


Roberts, O M; (2006); The World of Charles R Johnson: An Approach in Tomorrow’s Perspective; National Book Trust.

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