Text: “So to start, there was a medium-sized town–a long time ago–and there were a few wealthy patrons and some poor people on the outskirts. Some of the wealthier people thought of themselves as above all the poor people who they thought were lazy and didn’t deserve anything. So, there was this guy and his wife riding a horse drawn carriage back home after church, and there was this old lady standing in the road that had her hand out begging for food. The guy who was driving the carriage wasn’t watching and almost hit her, causing her to fall into a ditch. Instead of getting out and helping her up, he just tossed a six-pence at her and then just drove off, thinking “She deserved her lot in life.” However, the old lady was a type of witch, and she put a curse on him. As time went by, the guy noticed that all of his business dealings started crashing, and eventually his business went so bad that he went bankrupt and lost his house, and his wife divorced him. He lost everything, and as he got older and more and more feeble, he had to turn to begging. One day, he was begging on the same road that he first encountered the witch, and this motor vehicle came by and almost hit him and knocked him into the mud. And as he’s laying there in the mud, starving and half drowning, he’s thrown a six-pence by the passing car–the same one he gave the old lady.”
Context: The informant is a 63 year-old man who was told this story by his grandmother as a child to learn about how treating others poorly might come back to bite you. His maternal grandmother had an ancestral connection to the Salem Witch Trials, which was when this story took place.
Analysis: This is another example of how a legend can perform an intended social function or reinforce important messages. This story was told to the informant as a child and was meant to instill in him the importance of treating others with dignity and respect. It encapsulates a number of universal messages that every child learns, such as “treat others the way you want to be treated” and, more importantly, “what comes around goes around” (which the informant not surprisingly used as a title). The story is particularly effective at communicating these messages to children especially through its use of polarities and narrative symmetry. The use of polarities and clearly-defined extremes can resonate more effectively with a child who tends to process and understand the world in terms of binaries and in less of a nuanced way. The wealthy man who rapidly descends the socioeconomic ladder to the status of a beggar represents a very clear contrast in order to communicate to a younger audience the consequences of acting insensitively and allows no confusion in terms of portraying his actions as having a starkly negative outcome (the man is “starving and half-drowning” at the end). The story’s moral is likewise reinforced through its narrative symmetry. The legend has an organic ending that perfectly mirrors the way it began, coming full circle as the positions of the old lady and the man are reversed. The old lady, now, is the one throwing change in an identical act to the man in the beginning. The message “What comes around goes around” is thus inherent on an intuitive structural level in the story, where, quite literally, a coin being thrown inevitably gets tossed back. On this level, the message “What comes around goes around” can potentially be translated as “What gets thrown gets tossed back.” This legend is definitely useful for children as it anchors the message in a clear, concrete action that serves as the tangible thematic framework for the entire story. The tactile element of the coin and use of simple binaries throughout the story would naturally appeal to children, so it is no surprise that the informant’s grandmother chose a story like this in order to convey an important life lesson to her young grandchildren. If this story was indeed passed down from the Salem Witch Trials, it may have also been very effective at frightening children (and even adults) who were indoctrinated by the Church into believing in malevolent witches and compelling them to abide by Christian teachings, such as philanthropy and loving your neighbor as yourself.