Two symbolic passages concerning sea predators, one early in the novel and one at the conclusion, provide important clues to understanding Theodore Dreiser’s theme in The Financier. As a boy, Frank Cowperwood stoically observes an unequal contest in a large fish tank between a lobster and a squid. The lobster, certain of victory, bides his time and slowly devours the defenseless squid. In the context of Dreiser’s social metaphor, the strong destroy the weak, whether with sudden terrible force or gradually and relentlessly, like the lobster. The final symbolic passage, crudely added as an epilogue to the novel, treats the Mycteroperca bonaci (or black grouper), which, chameleonlike, changes its colors to avoid danger or to strike out at a weaker adversary. From Dreiser’s point of view, the black grouper represents an element of “subtlety, chicanery, trickery” that is also part of the human condition. The fish is no more responsible, in a Godless universe, for its trickery than humans are morally responsible for using deception as a means of power. In The Titan (1914), Dreiser continued the theme embodied in Frank’s rise to wealth and influence, an ascent that is determined by what the author understands as the laws of social Darwinism, as well as the theme of his socially conditioned fall from power. In The Financier, Dreiser details, with a naturalistic concern for inductive evidence, the causes both for Frank’s success and his eventual failure, just as a scientist might describe the behavior of a fish in an aquarium.
However, unlike a true scientist who observes phenomena objectively and dispassionately, Dreiser views the activities of his hero from the vantage point of his socialist philosophy. With that bias, the ruthless financier Frank ought to serve as an object lesson on the corruption of the capitalistic system. Despite the Marxist determinism at the center of his economic philosophy, however, Dreiser obviously admires Frank as a man, if not as a social creature. He sympathizes with his hero’s single-minded ambition to succeed, his contempt for intellectual inferiors, his violent sexual passions, and his stubborn, egoistical will. Although Dreiser’s early view of Frank may have been satirical, he treats him ultimately as a Nietzschean superman, advanced beyond the conventional feelings of petty morality, beyond remorse, pity, or loyalty for anyone but Aileen Butler, whose iron will and courage match his own. Even in Frank’s love for Aileen, there is, however, a measure of selfishness, for, quite simply, she satisfies his needs. Unlike many of the protagonists of Dreiser’s other novels—among them Carrie Meeber, Jennie Gerhardt, Clyde Griffiths, and Eugene Witla—Frank is a strong, magnetic, self-assured character, more the predatory lobster than the pitiful squid. Because Dreiser’s attitude toward Frank is ambivalent—he admires the man but is contemptuous of his capitalistic endeavors—the message of the novel is correspondingly ambiguous.
The Financier has other weaknesses, including a sometimes careless use of language. In the major scenes, however, Dreiser sustains a powerful, honest sense of realism. The author is at his best in analyzing Cowperwood’s tangled love affair with Aileen. The trial scene is masterly, as are the prison scenes. Without sentimentality, Dreiser touches life. In spite of its ambiguous theme and some stylistic weaknesses, The Financier is a novel of massive integrity that continues to move readers.