Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Exchange Value” is the second story in Charles Johnson’s collection of short stories, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1986). One of the themes of “Exchange Value” concerns setting in motion forces that one cannot then control. Loftis is shown as an ambitious young man, who sews labels of expensive suit manufacturers into the suits he buys at discount clothing stores. When he finally obtains the material things he longs for, however, he is unable to deal with it.

Many of the stories in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice deal with magic. In “Exchange Value,” the transformational value of money as a universal value system that can put a number and a value on anything is presented as a powerful force, dangerously magical in quality, which spellbinds both Cooter and Loftis. Loftis reasons that the dollar value of the piano they push to their apartment is equal to that of two gold lamé suits, a trip to Tijuana, or twenty-five sexual encounters with a prostitute. Like wizards, Cooter says, they now have the power to transform these things into anything that they wish.

It turns out to be the power itself that entrances Loftis. Remembering a time when, as a child, he traded a piece of family jewelry for a few pieces of candy, he determines not to make such a deal again. Like Elnora, he becomes a miser: After they move Elnora’s things into their own apartment, he drags two trash bags of discarded clothing in, because he sees...

(The entire section is 597 words.)