Study Guide

Picture This

by Joseph Heller

Picture This Themes

Themes

In 1986, when Heller was composing Picture This, which he originally entitled Poetics, he remarked that his manuscript was "becoming a book about money and war." Although clearly an oversimplification, his statement nevertheless does identify two of the novel's predominant concerns.

Money references pervade the narrative as Heller chronicles consumerism from the invention of money by the Lydians in the seventh century before Christ to the rise of banks and corporations in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century and then to the entrepreneurial maneuverings of Cornelius Vanderbilt and J. P. Morgan in the nineteenth century. Heller's exploration of capitalism centers most strongly, however, upon Rembrandt, whose financial rise and fall parallels the economic fate of the Dutch Republic.

As Heller portrays him, Rembrandt is embroiled in a seemingly endless series of financial woes concerning his wife's dowry, inheritance, and will, the high cost of real estate, collecting and paying debts, compensation from his patrons, his ex-mistress's demand for maintenance payments, and the shifting prices of his art works. With such difficulties it is no wonder that the artist explains that his figures have sad faces because they are worried about money.

The primary consequence of the invention of money, Heller wryly reminds us, is servitude: "With the invention of money in the seventh century before Christ, people became free, like Rembrandt, to borrow at interest and go into...

(The entire section is 619 words.)