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All that glitters is not gold;[1]

Often have you heard that told:

Many a man his life hath sold

But my outside to behold:

Gilded tombs do worms enfold.

Not everything that looks valuable on the surface is actually valuable. A bright facade on a house can conceal a rotting foundation. Makeup can conceal age and illness. A bright smile can hide deceit and hostility. Appearances can be deceiving.

The most well-known example is fool's gold (iron pyrite). A bright shiny rock that looks like polished gold, but is in fact worthless. Indeed, true gold is a dull color, and may not look valuable at all to the ignorant.

Whenever a character is deceived by surface appearances into overestimating the value of something this trope is in play.

In works that wish to teach the Aesop that material wealth is not the true wealth we should seek for it might be actual gold and jewels that "glitter" and deceive character into choosing them over less obvious wealth such as love or honor.

Examples of All That Glitters include:


  • A little short story in the Ouran High School Host Club manga dealt with the host club trying to find the perfect soup that their principal had sampled when he was younger. Turns out it was a very common soup and that the one giving the soup to the principal would later be his wife.
  • Inverted in The Lord of the Rings, in a poem about Aragorn, where the normal phrasing is reversed:

 All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost.

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring.

Renewed shall be blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.

    • The original saying means "Just because it glitters doesn't mean it's gold," and this example means "Just because it doesn't glitter doesn't mean it's not gold.
  • Older Than Steam: The name of this trope comes from The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare (though, in the original play, the line was "all that glisters is not gold"). When Bassanio figures out the riddle, he gains Portia's hand in marriage, having learned that he should appreciate her for her mind rather than her beauty. (Of course, she was very wealthy, so in winning the hand he got the gold too.)
  • SpongeBob SquarePants uses a variation of the trope in one episode. Spongebob replacing his old spatula with a high-tech one, then crawls back to his old one after his new one declares it's too good for him. Spongebob even says "all that glitters is not gold". And the episode title is... * drumroll* All That Glitters.
  • In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the pivotal confrontation between Big Daddy and his son Brick invokes this trope. Brick tells his father that he isn't impressed with his vast wealth and all he wanted was a father not a boss. Big Baddy retorts that what was there that he didn't buy him when he was growing up? Brick then screams that you can't buy love and proceeds to destroy a vast collection of art that Big Daddy had purchased in an auction to show that none of the material stuff really mattered to him, he only wanted his father's love. Big Daddy says that he does love him he just wanted what was best for him because he grew up poor and his own father left behind nothing of value that would be worth remembering other than an old suitcase with a Military uniform in it. Brick disagrees saying that his grandfather left behind love for Big Daddy, moved to tears Big Daddy agrees and promises to try better as a father for Brick.
  • A season two episode of Eureka uses this trope as its title and features a bacteria-eating virus which starts turning things to gold (and then to rust).
  • In the third Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Jones selects the grail by choosing a crappy-looking wooden cup, and saying "That's the cup of a carpenter," an insult to carpenters everywhere, and in ignorance of the fact that Jews made a point of getting nice stuff specifically for Passover use, and didn't necessarily make every single thing they used by hand. But at any rate, everyone in the audience knew which cup it was going to be at first glance because of this trope. The only suspense was whether or not anyone besides Indy was aware of the trope.

Notes

  1. Some modern readers find the phrase misleading - the real meaning is "Not everything that glistens is gold." The syntax is an accepted, albeit archaic, poetic form: the original Shakespeare line is "all that glisters is not gold". Glisters is an archaic word for "glisten". Although it may not be original to Shakespeare, since he writes "All that glisters is not gold/Often have you heard that told", suggesting it was already a proverb.
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