Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 556
None of Stead’s characters, with the possible exception of Michel, invites the reader’s sympathy; they are not intended to do so. While Jules seems to charm everyone and even wins the grudging respect of his enemies, he manages this only by withholding a complete and genuine representation of himself from any one individual. The narrator grants a complete view of Jules’s numerous weaknesses, mistakes, and character flaws from the reader’s perspective only. The reader sees Jules, and the other characters, from a privileged position, comprehending their foolishness and errors in ways which they cannot. Hence, William’s unquestioning trust for his brother be comes a confidence based not on filial love but on his sense of inadequacy, compared with Jules’s glittering self-confidence. William not only defers to Jules’s superior business sense; he shirks his own responsibilities. Claire-Josephe’s vocal concern for her children’s future is a convenient guise for expressing a genuine fear originating in self-interest, and not the parental conscience which she employs as its vehicle. Jules’s family circle is composed of characters whose veneer is only slightly more superficial than his own. Moreover, he never claims that the bank’s practices are ethical; he simply never discourages the clients from assuming that they are. Jules deceives perfectly within his circle, exposed through the narrator’s unrelentingly critical and ironic examination.
Although the reader is encouraged to recognize the Bertillons as the highclass con artists that they are, their practices are not as unsavory as those of the Raccamonds—at least the Bertillons have style and do not concede the criminal nature of their financial ruses. They accept that dishonest business is the only sort of business and assume that their clients think as they do, unlike the physically unattractive Raccamonds, who possess neither elegance nor the means to create its semblance. The Raccamonds’ brand of criminality is more noxious than that of the Bertillons, for the Raccamonds claim to be motivated by the clients’ interests, not their own, when attempting to blackmail the bank. Their pretense to moral obligations in the world of finance is as false as Jules knows such obligations are. Stead maneuvers her characters to transgress the limits of conventional morality repeatedly as they reiterate her message: that those conventions, like other social conventions, are simply a quite useful commodity in the world of high finance.
The exchange of these commodities, however, is not easily effected. The traders must always be deeply invested in the system itself. Michel’s character is an utter contradiction—his constant generosity and good humor co-exist with an unflinchingly ruthless economic strategy. His commitment to working within the world of high finance seems opposed to his political beliefs, but his investment in the bank is marked by a sense of the futility of all capitalist endeavors. He sees the frequently brutalizing effects of capitalism on the members of its ruling class as inevitable. His cynicism is different from Jules’s in that his faith lies elsewhere— in the eventual demise of an unapologetically exploitive system. Yet Michel’s love of Jules is genuine, and unlike the others, he sees beneath Jules’s flattering mask. In a world distinguished by corruption and greed, Michel is Stead’s evidence that something in human nature is ultimately redeemable and morally worthwhile.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1217
Michel Alphendéry (mee-SHEHL ahl-fehn-day-REE), the technical economics expert at the Bertillon bank, considered by all who know him to be a brilliant man. He is a Marxist and is thought by the banking people to be an idealist and a utopian. Even more surprising to them, Alphendery is honest: He has a limited power of attorney for the bank, allowing him to buy and sell, sign checks, and make decisions, but he never steals or cheats. Although he dislikes the chicanery of the financiers, Alphendery continues working for Jules Bertillon out of loyalty, affection, and inertia, and because he needs money to support his mother and his estranged wife, Estelle, who is unfaithful to him. Alphendery’s father was a lawyer and a small banker, and the son has been in finance since he was a small boy. Alphendery would like to make his fortune and get out of banking, but his big chance, in a grain deal with Leon and Jules, is ruined when Jules tries to manage the deal his way and bungles it.
Jules Bertillon (zhewlz behr-tee-YOH[N]), the real owner and policymaker of the Banque Mercure, a private bank in Paris. A fragile-looking, tall, elegantly dressed young man, Jules has the instincts of a gambler, and he makes fortunes for himself at Deauville (by betting on the horses) and on the stock exchange. Speculative and daring, Jules thinks that he can always make money. Jules is cynical, saying that a bank is a confidence trick. Alphendery says that Jules is a financial genius, bound to live and die rich. Most of the bank’s clients are rich because Jules does not want to bother with the small fry or listen to them cry about losses. In an atmosphere of world depression, Jules wants to make money, betting on disaster. At one point, Jules says that William, Alphendery, and he should take the clients’ 160 million francs and abscond, but Alphendery talks him out of the idea. Jules supports his wife, Claire-Josephe, his children, and most of his idle brothers.
William Bertillon, Jules’s older brother, a tall, blond, plump, and staid man. He looks as if he is never troubled by a thought and he pretends to take no notice of the clients in the bank, but he listens to gather information. He nags Jules, but he has a single-minded affection for his brother. He will not hear a word against Jules from anyone else, and he will stand by his brother in the face of trouble. William has formed the Five Brothers Simla Company as a nest egg for the family, although it is a secret from Jules. When Jules is away, leading the life of the idle rich, William manages the banking routine. William holds Alphendery in true affection because of the employee’s loyalty to Jules.
Henri Leon (ah[n]-REE lay-OH[N]), who sometimes does business with the Bertillons. He is one of the most brilliant grain traders and option placers on the Continent. Leon has clear brown eyes and long black hair brushed over his mostly bald skull. Short, with a gorilla’s chest and dressed in flashy suits, Leon nevertheless gives off the image of power, wealth, and the ability to make money. He is proud of the number of women with whom he has slept and is obsessed with moneymaking. He falls in love with Margaret Weyman, a calculating American, and sets her up in an apartment. Uncharacteristically, he puts money in a trust for her, and he gives her a generous allowance for living expenses. Leon respects Alphendery’s financial sense and his way with words, so Leon always asks Alphendery to compose letters for him, trying to get French and British state honors. In his early days, Julius Kratz was Leon’s crony, but they later became bitter enemies.
Aristide Raccamond (ah-rihs-TEED rah-kah-MOH[N]), a Paris stock exchange runner who is always trying to worm his way into the inner circle of the Banque Mercure and to profit from its dealings. Ambitious, energetic, and envious, Raccamond has a sensually rounded body and a solemn, melancholy face. He used to be the office manager and secretary for Leon. Jules considers him unlucky and a bother. Raccamond is pushed to achieve by his plain wife, Marianne, who says that there is nothing in life except money.
Jacques Carriere (zhahk kahr-YEHR), a conceited and impudent young society bachelor, an acquaintance of Jules who frequents the bank. Alphendery says that Carriere is completely rotten, with no sound spot. Challenging Jules, Carriere bets him that England will not go off the sterling silver standard; if Jules loses, he will guarantee payments to Carriere for approximately three years. Jules agrees to pay 122 francs to the British pound, to the sum of 25,000 pounds every four months, a ruinous agreement. Carriere’s lawyer makes the agreement even more unfair through substitute wording. The rumor in England is that Carriere will bleed Jules to death. Carriere’s motivation is that he is jealous of Jules, whom he sees as fertile, while he sees himself as formless and unable to conceive properly.
Adam Constant (ah-DAHM koh[n]-STAH[N]), one of the bank’s tellers, a Marxist and Alphendery’s friend. At twenty-four years of age, convinced that his life will be short, he wants to go to China to join the Red Army. Instead, Jules sends him to England to set up an English branch of Bertillon’s, the Leadenhall Securities Guarantee Corporation.
Jean Frere (zhah[n] frehr), another of Alphendery’s Marxist friends, one who writes articles and book reviews for the Workers’ Almanac. Frere lives in the country, where he has a garden. To some extent, Frere acts as Alphendery’s socialist conscience. Alphendery does not want to embezzle money with Jules partly because of what Frere will think. Alphendery says that when Frere gives him some advice, after about a month Alphendery finds himself taking it.
Richard Plowman, the former head, now retired, of the Timor and Arafura Banking Corporation. He is the closest friend of Jules Bertillon. Richard has a sweet and obliging nature and frequently does favors for friends. The perfect Englishman, he has a long oval face, gray hair, and kind blue eyes. In and out of the bank at all hours, he was one of Jules’s first believers.
Daniel Cambo, a wealthy man with a fortune of half a million guilders. He explains to the bankers that he is going into the bazaar business, selling unwanted goods. He will make money from other people’s mistakes, from their bankruptcies and bad business judgments. He will deal in human dreck, not in dreck goods.
Davigdor Schicklgruber (DAH-veeg-dohr SHIH-kehl-grew-behr), a Rhineland Jew who resembles the ideal Aryan: blond, blue-eyed, tall, and well-muscled. He seems to be a fool, interested only in chasing women, but he works for Lord Zinovraud, a Scottish peer and multimillionaire. Like many others, Davigdor is a friend of Alphendery, partly because Alphendery gave him a good financial tip that helped Davigdor impress Lord Zinovraud. Davigdor is loyal to the Scottish peer because he expects to be remembered in his will.