16 July 2006

The Financier, Theodore Dreiser

"This was his hour. Like a wolf prowling under glittering, bitter stars in the night, he was looking down into the humble folds of simple men and seeing what their ignorance and their unsophistication would cost them"(441).

These lines describe Frank Cowperwood upon his hearing that Jay Cooke and Co. have failed. They show him, and by extrapolation all of his kind, as a predatory animal. Yet these lines are applied to a thirty-six year old man, a veteran of the stock exchange, and one who has learned how ruthless the world of finance can be. It would not be fair, based solely on this image, to call Cowperwood an animal. Unfortunately, imagery throughout the book does lead us to exactly such a conclusion. Even at age ten Frank demonstrates animalistic qualities. after watching a captive lobster catch and devour a squid, he guesses "That's the way it had to be and trots home(8).

Nor is Cowperwood the only financier described animalistically. Steemberger, a beef speculator, has a face "something like that of a pig"(12); brokers on the exchange "were like certain fish waiting for a certain bait"(40); Edward Butler, the trashman-turned contractor-turned political insider who is so abused by Cowperwood, on the other hand, is "hale and strong like seasoned hickory"(67). These illustrations refer to men of power in general, though, and our concern is specifically with Cowperwood. Even in his first financial transaction, the purchase and resale of Castille soap, Frank is "like a young hound on the scent of game"(19). Later, during the stock crisis caused by the Chicago fire, he is described as a snake watching a bird(180).

These examples of the imagery used to describe Cowperwood should convincingly show that, from the narrator's perspective at least, he is nothing but a hungry, wild animal, grasping for profit the way a wolf tears into a lamb. As such, he is in no way worthy of admiration, in spite of his civilized demeanor and presentation of himself. Instead, he should be seen as dangerous, something to be avoided, if not shot on sight. Yes, like the lion, Cowperwood is a fine and glorious beast, powerful and handsome. But the placid demeanor demonstrated while sitting in the shade only masks the passionate power of the creature, and should not fool anyone into coming within its reach.


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