(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

When he is released from a Pennsylvania prison in the 1870’s, Frank Algernon Cowperwood is a millionaire but not very young. He goes to Chicago to begin a new life with his mistress, Aileen Butler, and within a short time has made friends among influential businessmen there. Divorced by his first wife, Cowperwood finally marries Aileen. He prepares to increase his fortune, to become a power in the city, and to conquer its society. To this end, he seeks an enterprise that will yield heavy returns on his investment quickly. In his first battle among the financial barons of Chicago, he gains control of the gas companies.

At the same time, the Cowperwoods lay siege to Chicago society, but with little success. Aileen Cowperwood is too high-spirited and lacking in the poise that is required for social success. Then Cowperwood becomes involved in several lawsuits, and his earlier political and economic disgrace in Philadelphia is exposed in the Chicago newspapers. After a long battle, Cowperwood is able to force the rival gas companies to buy out his franchises at a profit to himself. That deal brings social defeat to the Cowperwoods, at least temporarily, for Frank’s rivals in finance are also the social powers of Chicago at the time. Cowperwood turns once again to a mistress, but the affair ends when Aileen attempts to kill her rival.

For several years, a cable-car system of street railways claims most of Cowperwood’s time. He buys control of the horsecar company that serves the north side of Chicago. Then his naturally promiscuous temperament asserts itself when he meets the dark, lush Stephanie Platow. Ten years younger than his wife and interested in art, literature, and music, she is able to fill a place in his life that Aileen never could.

While involved in his affair with Stephanie, Cowperwood coerces the street railway company on the west side into giving its franchise to him. His enjoyment of his victory is partially spoiled when he learns that Stephanie is also the lover of another man. Meanwhile, financial forces are at work against Cowperwood. Two city bosses hope to play the city politicians against him, for without the support of the city council to aid him with franchises and grants, the financier will be helpless to merge all the street railways of the city under his control.

The first battle is fought in an election to gain possession of the Chicago city council. Cowperwood finds it far more painful to learn at this time that his wife has been unfaithful to him than to discover that he has arrayed the whole financial and social element of the city against himself. The loss of the election proves no permanent setback to Cowperwood, however, nor does his wife’s infidelity. From the latter he recovers, and the former is soon undone by his opponents when they fail to pave the way with favors and money when they try to push bills through the new reform council. Even the new mayor is soon an ally of Cowperwood.


(The entire section is 1222 words.)