Like The Young Lions, Rich Man, Poor Man tells the separate stories of three protagonists even as it gradually intersects those plots. Tom, Gretchen, and Rudolph are like bumper cars on long elastic bands. Their initial collision during Gretchen's affair with Teddy Boylan sends them recoiling in different directions until the elastic of sibling relationship brings them back together in another collision. In turn, the new head-on crash sends them outward again. This pattern is repeated in each of the novel's four books. With each collision, however, the impact is less violent, and the centripetal force bringing them together grows stronger. Like The Young Lions, the novel ends with a fatal confrontation in which the best, the most humane spirit is killed. This structure keeps taut the tension of the novel until the very last page.
The plot of Rich Man, Poor Man is composed of one intensive scene after another. The Jordaches battle to get ahead against forces larger than themselves. Gretchen's lovemaking, Tom's boxing, Rudolph's wheeling and dealing all have the tension of combat. The Jordaches approach each interaction as a contest in which one must lose because the other will win. Each chapter recounts a pitched battle in the ring, in bed, or in the board room. Repeated doses of melodramatic clashes over sex, glory, and money make this novel the archetypal best seller.
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Rich Man Poor Man will appeal to readers who love family sagas or who are curious about the book that the film adaptations come from. Each of the questions below can be used to analyze the novel itself or to discuss differences between the book and the film.
1. How does Shaw divide the legacy of Mary and Axel Jordache among three offspring? A story about a son and a daughter would seem to have an easy and natural structure. Why three protagonists?
2. Does Shaw present each protagonist with equal sympathy? What is admirable and unadmirable about each?
3. Clearly Tom's best moment occurs at the end of the novel when he rescues Jean. He has transformed from thug to hero. What is Gretchen's best moment? What is Rudolph's?
4. About three-quarters through the novel, Gretchen asserts that her affair with Teddy Boylan was the shaping event in all their lives. How accurate is Gretchen's assertion?
5. Tom's friend Dwyer gets the last line in the novel, "Rich man's weather, Dwyer remembered." What do you make of that comment? Are the Jordache's still short of being "rich?" Or is the weather a sign they have become "rich?" Does "rich" mean more than "wealthy?" 6. Shaw deftly portrays arguments, fights, lustful encounters, riots, and other confrontational moments. Which violent scenes in the novel are most memorable?
7. Tom's death is not dramatized; it is reported with great understatement. Perhaps...
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Chronologically, Rich Man, Poor Man follows The Young Lions (1948): its action begins in the last days of World War II. It tells how one American family, the Jordaches, are affected by the sexual, social, and economic changes in postwar America. Shaw approaches the story with many of the radical leftist sympathies that marked his plays and short stories in the 1930s and 1940s. The novel is a unique blending of proletarian consciousness with the conventional saga tracing the rise of a family over several generations. Shaw's proletarian sympathy is summed up by one character's rule-of-thumb: "Never trust the rich." This wisdom is proved again and again in the plot. Yet the novel plainly shows how wise the Jordache children are to pursue material wealth. Shaw's anti-capitalism is tempered by his awareness of capitalism's benefits. Unlike other proletarian writers of the 1930s, Shaw cares little for social or economic philosophy. He does care passionately that the social system be fair to individuals. Rich Man, Poor Man turns the Horatio Alger myth on its head: conquering poverty and achieving the American Dream of financial success and social respectability results from change as much as from good character.
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The family saga is a popular form of fiction that originated in Victorian England. In nineteenth-century England, as in twentieth-century America, the rapid growth of prosperity in society as a whole made possible a rapid rise of many individuals. William Makepeace Thackeray's The Newcomers (1855), Charles Dickens' Great Expectations (1858), and Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now (1872) are just three early examples of fiction dealing with the effects of economic change on family life from generation to generation. In Victorian fiction the hero or heroine's challenge is to marry for love and for secure sufficient income to live comfortably. The family saga is the romance — or the fairy tale — of the middle class aspiration that children find more social success and acceptance than their parents. The modern progenitor of the family saga novel is John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga (1922), a trilogy about the Soames clan.
The family saga in contemporary American fiction often portrays a family's struggle for love and money against the backdrop of important historical events. Examples of some periods are the Colonial period, the Civil War, the settling of the West, and the World Wars. The connection between family fortune and historical events is sociologically sound; economic upsurge and political/social upheaval have gone hand-in-hand in United States history. The popularity of the saga is a testimony to the accuracy with...
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Beggarman, Thief (1977) tells of the third generation of Jordaches who come of age in the late 1960s. The protagonists are Gretchen's son Billy Abbott and Tom's son Wesley Jordache. Like their parents, they must contend with a legacy. For Billy the legacy is jealousy: Billy is driven to alienation by Gretchen's love affairs, which he regards as insults to his father's memory. Billy grows so alienated that he joins a band of terrorists. Wesley bears the legacy of revenge: His determination to find the killers of his father leads him into danger from organized crime. Only half the length of its predecessor, Beggarman, Thief, does not develop the range of characters or the sweep of events that made the first novel noteworthy. The sequel also suffers from the lack of a strong female protagonist.
The sequel lacks the social commentary that Shaw's proletarian sympathies added to Rich Man, Poor Man. Neither protagonist is personally attractive to readers — Billy seems spoiled and shallow, Wesley naive — and both get into predicaments that seem contrived.
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Rich Man, Poor Man became a television miniseries during the 1976-1977 television season. It aired in eight parts for twelve hours of prime time. The numerous cast members included many veteran performers: Edward Asner, Ray Milland, Peter Strauss, Nick Nolte, and Susan Blakely. Shaw's narrative method — stringing together discrete, subtly related scenes — is easily adapted to television's steady rhythm of commercial-episode, commercial-episode. Rich Man, Poor Man was repeated as a regular series in the 1977-78 season, and its success prompted a Rich Man, Poor Man Part II, which carried the story of Gretchen and Rudolph past the point where the novel stopped. The television version prompted a renewed interest in Shaw's earlier books. Several novels were reprinted and his short stories were published in a collected edition.
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