Ben Franklin uses repeated instances of grammatical parallelism in “The Whistle” to describe people who have “paid too much for their whistles.” He emphasizes his points—the different things that people give up or “pay” for material possessions, prestige, or pleasure—through specific examples. Franklin punctuates each example by ending each paragraph with a variation on the phrase conveying the idea of paying or giving too much for a whistle. The whistle symbolizes the coveted but frivolous and worthless object.
As a young child, Franklin excitedly spent all his money to buy a whistle at a toy store. After returning home with his new purchase, he gleefully blew it to the annoyance of his family members. They then laughed at him, informing him that he overpaid for the whistle, which was worth only a quarter of the amount he spent on it. Franklin ruefully wondered what else he could have bought if he had not wasted all his money on the whistle.
From this experience, he learned:
When I was tempted to buy some unnecessary thing, I said to myself, Don't give too much for the whistle; and I saved my money.
In other words, the object of a person’s desire may not be essential and useful and thus not worth the cost. Franklin notes that since his youth, he has seen many men who gave “too much for the whistle.”
His first example is a person who wants to “court favor” or seek flattery. This person sacrifices his rest and leisure time as well as personal freedom, integrity, and even friendships in pursuit of prestige. Franklin comments, “This man gives too much for his whistle.”
Franklin’s second example is a person who wants popularity. Such a person is so busy with political business and public affairs that he neglects his own personal business and affairs, presumably his family, friendships, and health. Franklin notes, “He pays, indeed, too much for his whistle.”
His third example is a greedy person who eschews generosity, benevolence, respect from others, and friendships in order to hold on to his wealth. He cares about nothing but money. In actuality, though, he is a poor man who (according to Franklin) pays too much for his whistle.
In the fourth example, Franklin describes a hedonistic who forgoes intellectual pursuits and financial gain purely for physical pleasure to the point of ruining his health. Franklin admonishes, “Mistaken man, you are providing pain for yourself, instead of pleasure; you give too much for your whistle.”
Ultimately, Franklin emphasizes the universality of this problem. He stresses and concludes with the same parallel structure that a
great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by the false estimates they have made of the value of things, and by their giving too much for their whistles.
It is common that people care so much for material possessions, prestige, and/or pleasure that they are willing to sacrifice more than just money to obtain what they want. But as Franklin illustrates, money (or integrity, relationships, health, self-respect, etc.) cannot buy happiness.