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When disaster has struck, and most of the populace in the affected area is either dead or evacuated, the remaining survivors are sometimes forced to steal from local stores and homes to obtain the goods they need to survive the aftermath.
This situation can cause a moral quandary for people who have a strict code of honor. While most of the characters depicted will have little issues with doing what they need to get by, the Noble Shoplifter will struggle with the decision to steal from someone who may or may not be returning for their property at some point. While these characters are often shown to initially struggle with the decision, they will usually come up with a simple solution: they leave behind money or some other valuables that cover the cost of whatever they take. This makes the act less like "stealing" in the mind of the Noble Shoplifter, and more "buying without the previous owner's knowledge".
It is not uncommon for the Noble Shoplifter's companions to give him or her a hard time about it, arguing that the former owners are very likely dead and that priority should be given to the living. They may also argue that there is nothing to stop other groups of scavengers from taking the valuables the Noble Shoplifter leaves behind... in fact, a more unscrupulous member of the Noble Shoplifter's own party may find an excuse to backtrack and do exactly that.
This trope is primarily used to portray the moral fiber of a character. In works where the Noble Shoplifter is displayed in a positive light, this reflects that they are the kind of person who will do the right thing, regardless of the fact that there are no negative consequences to giving in to the impulse to just take what they need. Other works may serve as a contrast, framing the Noble Shoplifter as Lawful Stupid while their peers are simply being pragmatic given the circumstances.
A common variation of this trope takes place in non-disaster related stories wherein The Protagonist needs to get something from a shop, but the shop is closed or the clerk is unavailable. Usually pressed for time, the character will take what they need anyway but leave enough cash behind to cover it.
Contrast Disaster Scavengers, Planet Looters and Gentleman Thief. The Noble Shoplifter is rarely seen in a Scavenger World, as those settings are usually far beyond the point where original ownership matters.
Anime & Manga
- In Meteor, one of the student survivors of a meteor strike in Japan insists on leaving enough yen behind to cover the cost when his group finds food and water in a convenience store.
- In Green Arrow: City Walls, although the city is without power and looting is rampant, GA insists that his people leave payment whenever they take food or weapons from a store.
- Undead or Alive: When the trio of wild west outcasts raid an unoccupied general store for supplies in the midst of an emerging Zombie Apocalypse, the cowboy-wannabe Elmer wonders if it's not wrong to be stealing despite the circumstance. Luke counters that rather than stealing, they're about to become the owner's "favorite customers" before tossing a large wad of bills on the counter.
- In Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Hermione keeps doing this while the trio are on the run.
- She does this at least once in the book as well.
- In Panic In Year Zero the family comes to a gas station where the owner is taking advantage of the disaster to charge an outrageous (for the time) price for gasoline. After trying and failing to reason with him, Harry knocks him out, takes the gas, and leaves enough money to pay for the gas at what he considers a fair price.
- Done unknowingly by Shaun in Shaun of the Dead. When the entire town is deserted, Shaun just goes about his daily business and goes to convenience store to shop for groceries. When he notices the shopkeeper isn't there, he just puts his money on the counter rather than wait for him.
- 28 Days Later, after gamboling through a deserted greengrocer's, the heroes leave behind a credit card.
- After the three runaways from O Brother, Where Art Thou? swipe a pie left cooling on someone's windowsill, Delmar leaves $5 under a rock on the sill as payment.
- Captain Carrot in The Fifth Elephant who insists on leaving money behind when he takes food from isolated farmhouses whilst trailing a werewolf pack into the mountains. The houses themselves are not actually unoccupied, it's just that Carrot looks scary so the owners tend to hide when he approaches and acting as a Noble Shoplifter is easier than dragging them out and buying it normally.
- Another variant from Discworld, werewolf Angua sometimes kills chickens during her "time of the month," but always remembers where she's been and leaves money under the door. She's a strict vegetarian the rest of the time.
- From the second book of the His Dark Materials series, The Subtle Knife:
Before they left, Will dropped some coins in the till behind the counter.
"What you doing?" she said.
"Paying. You have to pay for things. Don't they pay for things in your world?"
"They don't in this one! I bet those other kids en't paying for a thing."
"They might not, but I do."
- Jack Fleming from The Vampire Files does this when he needs new clothes, as he can't visit stores during daytime business hours and would cast no reflection in the mirrors of a tailor's shop. So he enters at night, takes what he needs off the rack, and leaves money on the counter.
Live Action TV
- In the Incredible Hulk live action TV series, David Banner often did things like steal pants when necessary after changing back from the Hulk, but left money behind.
- On Castle, the eponymous Castle's daughter is so noble that she pays when her friends shoplift.
- Inverted at one point on The Walking Dead - an abandoned pharmacy that two characters scavenge has a sign (implied to have been left by the original owner) telling survivors they are welcome to take whatever they need.
- The music videos for "Is Anybody Home?" by Our Lady Peace shows a woman waking up in a suddenly empty city. At one point she goes into a store to buy something. There's nobody at the cash register, and at first she simply leaves the money on the counter... the trope is then subverted in that she changes her mind and takes the money anyway.
- Mario in Super Mario RPG. When the Mushroom Kingdom is under attack, the item shopkeeper can be found cowering in the back of the shop, with a sign on the counter saying to take what you want and leave the money. Reading it allows you to buy items as if the shopkeeper was there, with no option to leave without paying.
- A similar situation is found in Earthbound. In Happy Valley, there's a food cart with a sign saying they trust you to take what you need and leave the money. However, in this case, the player does have the option to leave without paying, so this trope depends on the player.
- In The Order of the Stick, Elan does this to get a new lute while fleeing Azure City.
- In Goblins, Big Ears insists that Thaco leaves money for the food he steals. In this case, the reason he can't shop normally is because he's a goblin in a city where goblins are feared.
- Arthur does this in an Imagine Spot.
- This happens in an episode of Codename: Kids Next Door when Number 2 has to go to the grocery store, but it's already closed. He picks up the items he needs and leaves money behind, but still gets accused of trying to steal.
- A variant occurs in one episode of The Amazing World of Gumball. Convinced that the impending solar eclipse will cause the end of the world, Gumball, Darwin, and Richard raid the local grocery store for supplies...with every intention of paying, of course, but the lines are obscene and the self-checkout refuses to behave. In the end, they charge out the door with a cart full of groceries and throw a fistful of money in the pursuing security guard's face.