Review Of The Financier by Theodore Dreiser

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 3/30/09


  Greed. Money. Power. Given our current financial times, I am surprised more are not speaking about Theodore Dreiser. The Financier is Dreiser’s 1912 novel following his most well known work, Sister Carrie. The Financier is set during the 1860s and 70s, though little dates the work as a whole, for the lead character, Frank Cowperwood, could be any corrupt CEO living on Wall Street today.

  Dreiser takes readers into Frank’s early years, noting the young boy’s interest in banking, but it is an early incident upon seeing a squid and a lobster in a tank together that makes the biggest impression upon young Frank, forcing him to wonder just ‘how is life organized?’


  “The squid couldn’t kill the lobster—he had no weapon. The lobster could kill the squid—he was heavily armed. There was nothing for the squid to feed on; the lobster had the squid as prey. What was the result to be?”

  Frank learns early that if one is going to thrive, he must aim to be the lobster and not the squid. He sees that money holds power, and so he embarks on a number of early business ventures where he views the men he works for as “nothing more than characters in his eyes” and does so without maliciousness. In fact, Frank isn’t malicious at all-- he’s just indifferent towards anything that does not immediately benefit him. 

  Frank simply has a sense of entitlement and no personal reservations about looking down on others. Looking to satisfy his own immediate interests, he is not someone pondering the country’s current issue with slavery or any issue outside himself. This fact does not make Frank evil, but merely narcissistic and ultimately—realistic. After all, how many people today go to bed worrying over those who might lose their homes to foreclosure or those starving in Third World countries?

  Eventually, Frank falls into a loveless marriage, and experiences some tension when he becomes involved with a much younger woman—Aileen, who is the daughter of a business partner. The two work at keeping the affair quiet, but eventually the secret emerges, among a number of other shady practices Frank has been involved in.

  There are parts to the novel that can be dry to read—notably the intimate details Dreiser provides readers involving the Philadelphia banking industry during the Civil War days. Problems arise when Chicago suffers a great fire in 1871, and the monies that Frank’s business had been investing fall through. Many begin asking for their money back, and Frank must try to prevent bankruptcy. Although the detail is necessary when it comes to providing insight into Frank’s character and just how much weight is involved within his scandals, not all of it is necessary.

  This threat of bankruptcy becomes not only a business failure, but a personal one as well. Frank craves money because in it carries power. Most want money, he realizes, but not for money alone. “They want it for what it will buy in the way of simple comforts, where as the financier wants it for what it will control—for what it will represent in the way of dignity, force, power.”

  Once Frank’s shady business practices become exposed, he must face a trial and eventual jail time. The book drags a bit during the trial period, and could have benefited from some trimming. Yet the interesting point Dreiser makes is that Frank is by no means exceptional in his corruption, he’s just unlucky because he’s the one who has been branded a scapegoat and the one who gets caught. Had it been any other time, the blame could have easily fallen upon one of his partners, since backstabbing and cheating are rampant.

  There is a particularly interesting scene where a black man is being accused of having stolen a lead pipe, and he is told that punishment for such a crime could be up to one year hard labor, yet ultimately the black man is spared this punishment, and released with only a warning. Though the man who pardons him approaches the black man with such condescension—acting as though he is somehow doing him a favor by not granting him this severe punishment for such a minor crime. Meanwhile, Frank’s crime of stealing thousands of dollars is not viewed as harshly. Inevitably, Frank does go to jail for his crime, but ultimately, given the times, he will thrive once again, where as the black man will forever in his lifetime be under the oppressive thumb of white man racism.

The Financier is certainly an excellent book, but like the lead character, it is not without its flaws. Parts could have certainly been trimmed, and the love triangle among Frank, his much younger lover Aileen, and his wife Lillian could at times dip into soap-opera tendencies. While a well-written and excellent portrayal of greed, The Financier falls just short of his great earlier novel, Sister Carrie. Though Dreiser’s best skills remain those involving character insights and their mechanical indifferences felt towards others. Just as the young Frank viewed his early bosses as “nothing more than characters,” note how he views the women in his life:


  “Cowperwood looked at his wife with unflinching eyes…She was no longer attractive physically, and intellectually she was not Aileen’s equal…she was lacking in certain social graces. Aileen was by no means vastly better, but she was still young and amenable and adaptable, and could still be improved.”

  Even the women in his life he views more as business ventures than people. Yet the sad thing is, this is very common among our shallow culture. Empathy and sympathy simply do not exist for some, and there are many big names today one could compare Frank Cowperwood to. One can say he is despicable, but he is not unusual in his despicable nature. In fact, he is just like everyone else within his calculated cosmos, though he was just unlucky and got caught. And that is what he regrets—not his crimes. The key to succeeding is to stay lucky and turn everyone around you into a fearful squid, leaving them with nothing to wait for, except the inevitable pinch from the claws of power. Just ask my old boss. Thankfully I left that job years ago.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]


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